Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream)
Samanta Schweblin
Literatura Random House, 2014, pg 124

I’m not sure what I think of Distancia de rescate. My uncertainty is not a backhanded way of saying the book isn’t that good. Normally I am a big fan of Schweblin as you can see in my writings on her work. Moreover, her approach to writing does not fundamentally differ in Distancia from her short stories. If anything the narrative mystery that propels many of her stories is even stronger in this short novel. Which brings me back to my original statement: I’m not sure what I think about her work and by that I mean is there something I am missing in my reading, or do I think the book is flawed in some way? Let me see if I can answer that for myself and in that way develop an appreciation of the novel that you, my reader, will find useful.

The title for the English language translation, Fever Dream, is more suggestive of what the novel is: a feverish dream from someone who very ill, perhaps about to die. The title also gives away too much, sets a direction for interpretation that while it exists, is more subtle in the Spanish original, roughly means keeping someone close for safety. The Spanish title reflects fear that pervades the novel, the English title the structure of the novel.

Structurally, the novel is a conversation between two voices. One is Carla the mother of a young girl. She is the narrator. The second voice is of David, a you neighbor. Or so we are told. The voice is presented in italicized font and does not identify itself. Only Carla identifies the boy, David. The obvious question is, is this narrative structure as it seems? To answer that you have to go father into Carla’s narrative state. This is where the idea of the fever dream comes. As the novel begins, her narration is even, matter of fact. As she goes deeper into the story, though, her fears mount. Is something going to happen to her daughter? How can she protect her, keep her close? Is the distancia de rescate (safety distance) sufficient to protector? Carla repeatedly wonders in the distancia de rescate is sufficient. Schweblin is an skilled writer and she keeps ratcheting up the tension as Carla slips farther into fear. Which returns us to the question of the narration. The conversation could just be feverish imaginings. Carla is very suspicious of David from the beginning. He is a menacing figure with seemingly supernatural powers. He’s a kind of devil child from a horror movie. Can we trust Carla’s description of events? Despite Schweblin’s facility with the fantastic, you could read the narration as either a conversation between a darkly evil child and Carla, or the feverish imaginings of a desperate mother.

What makes Carla desperate and David so threatening are the poisoned waters. In a recent interview in the Clarian Schweblin talked about the destruction of the Argentine country side with the use of glifosato, which in the English speaking world we know by its trade name: Roundup® by Monsanto. It adds an interesting element to what seems fantastical: poisoned waters that no one seems to know about. David’s mother tells Carla about the time he dipped his hand in a pool of water on the farm where they live, put them in her mouth, and took sick shortly after. The local villagers performed a rite to save the boy, but it mingled his soul with another. From then on David has never been the same. He is threatening. He’s often found burring dead birds and small animals. It is not clear if he killed the animals or if they died in the same way that David almost did.  Carla doesn’t want him near her daughter. The fear and suspense runs through the book and it’s the mark of Schweblin’s skill that it continues to the end of the novel.

As I read through what I’ve written I find that Distancia is a better book than I thought when I first put it down. The multiple approaches to reading is a mark of its many strengths. The narration is open ended and her use of the fantastic and a frantic narrator draws you in. It was the feeling of open endedness of the ending is what gives me pause when I think about the book. The nature of the narative’s construction can probably end as something open ended. All narratives continue after they have finished in the mind of the reader. But Distancia’s ending is unsettling. It is a strength of the book, but for me the unsettling end has the effect making me question if read it well enough. (I’m sure I did) Ultimately, Distancia de rescate is an excellent read, but I might have preferred her short stories just a bit more.