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.

Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses)
Samanta Schweblin
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg 123

Anyone who has read this blog will know that I admire Samanta Schweblin’s work. While little has come out in English, and at that only a few stories and a short novel, her work as a short story writer deserves attention. Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) was 2015 Riviera del Duero short story prize winner, and her latest book of stories to come out, published by Paginas de Espuma in Spain. Her work has always played with the fantastic, or, as I think I read somewhere, the borer between the real and the unreal. Her previous 2009 short story collection La furia de las pestes (my review) (re titled Pajaros en la Boca) certainly held to that territory. With Siete casas vacías, though, the fantastic is no longer is no longer an external element or force that one can interact with, no matter how strange. Instead, its an open question, perhaps of motivation, perhaps of perspective. Either way, its something unsaid. In that unsaid, though, is the unreal, or at least the odd. Its a change that brings the common place ever closer to her work and turns it into the fantastic.

The first story, Nada de todo esto (None of all this) is indicative of this move. In it we have a mother and daughter driving through a neighborhood. The mother seems confused, uncertain where she is going or how she get there. She is driving and the daughter is asking her to stop, to let her take over. They end up in the house of a rich woman. At this point the mother proceeds to look all through the house and steals a wooden sugar jar. This was the whole reason for entering the house. They leave only to have the owner of the sugar jar find them. The daughter wants to give it back and yet there is hesitation in her. It is the elusiveness of her mother’s motivations, and the daughter’s growing resistance, that lave the story open ended. What is this habit? Simple theft or something more?  Schweblin’s handling of the ambiguity, mixed with the a kind of comedy of errors, is well handled.

The best story of the collection (and longest at 50 pages) is La respiracion cavernaria (Deep Breathing). It is the simple, and yet mysterious, story of a widow, Lola, who lives alone in her home and is slowly feeling her age and her isolation press in on her. Schweblin captures the day to day struggle against solitude and the simple tasks that age make difficult. All around her home she sees change and crime and threats and is always on the look out for problems. Are the neighborhood boys stealing the things in her garage? What’s that noise she hears outside her window? She visits her neighbor several times to complain about her son. But the neighbor says her son died some time ago. For Lola it doesn’t register. She still thinks he wants chocolates that she would give him. For the reader, the unreality of age, of perception, begins to take the story into a different direction. What does Lola really experience? Its that lack of reality that makes the story even more profound. If the hardships of age weren’t bad enough, the loss of a fixed reality only make it worse. Its here that Schweblin’s skill at the unstated reality shows her work to be of exceptional quality.

Schweblin’s work seldom disappoints and Seven Empty Houses definitely does not. It is a worthy prize winner in a competition that has seen some excellent work by previous winners (my reviews: The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, Mirar al agua by Javier Sáez de Ibarra). Her work stands out as some of the highest quality short stories in the Spanish language.

An interview with Schweblin at lit hub.

Read a recent review of her last novel now translated in English.

Guide to Argentine Literature at the Feria de Guadalajara from El Pais

El Pais has a guide to Argentine literature for the Feria de Guadalajara. The is plenty to read, from the famous to the up and coming. I recommend the overview article which discusses Argentina, writing as a profession and newer writers. I also recommend the list of 16 less well known writers from Argentina. Piglia and Aria are the most well known, and Schweblin has appeared on this blog several times. Hebe Uhart is untranslated, but you can read a few stories of her’s in the new A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from Open Letter which came out recently.

En torno a la generación de los 40 años han despuntado también otros escritores: Félix Bruzzone (Buenos Aires, 1976), hijo de desaparecidos víctimas de la dictadura militar que aborda de forma indirecta en sus cuentos el problema de las desapariciones; también sobresale Samanta Schwebling, quien con dos libros de cuentos publicados en 2002 y en 2009 se convirtió en la autora de la que todo el mundo hablaba hace 14 años. Ahora acaba de publicar su primera novela, Distancia de rescate (Random House). Otro nombre y otro título: Julián López y su primera novela, Una muchacha muy bella (Eterna cadencia, 2013), que relata la historia de un niño y su madre, desaparecida en los años 70. Hay muchos más autores y gran diversidad entre ellos. Pero si algo tienen en común es que casi ninguno vive de lo que publica.

A falta de ingresos por derechos de autor, los talleres son un buen recurso para pagar las facturas de luz y agua. Selva Almada, que acudió en su día al taller de Alberto Laiseca, dirige otro taller. Abelardo Castillo, uno de los escritores más consagrados, cuenta con el que quizás sea el taller más antiguo de Argentina. Y suele recibir a los alumnos advirtiéndoles que el taller no sirve para nada. En una entrevista publicada en 2008 en La Nación, Castillo comentaba:

New Collection of Ana María Shua Short Stories, Contra el tiempo, Edited by Samanta Schweblin

Páginas de Espuma recently published a collection of short stories from the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. What caught my interest is Samanta Schweblin, one of the short story writers I mention on this blog with a certain frequency is the editor. The collection is the third in the Vivir del Cuento series from Páginas de Espuma. The series title means both to live by telling stories, but also to be lair or teller of tall tales. I’m quite interested and look forward to reading Schweblin’s introduction. You can read it here (pdf). If you are interested you can also listen to an interview with the two of them of Spanish radio. And read an interview in El Pais:

A través del email y por mediación de Vivir del cuento, la colección que ideó su editor Juan Casamayor, estas dos cuentistas convinieron una antología que “permite ver todos los colores de Shua”, afirma Shweblin. El resultado es una selección de representantes de los narradores en los que se traduce Shua, sus personajes cotidianos que al girar la esquina se transmutan en inquietud, y la mezcla de humor –“del negro”, adjetivan- y mortalidad que estiliza su narrativa. “Este humor es bastante difícil de lograr, camina en una cornisa muy delicada, siempre está al límite”, opina la joven antóloga. “Este mundo me parece un lugar muy absurdo, loco, raro y disparatado”, continúa Shua. “Los seres humanos tratamos de traducirlo a la racionalidad. Hay algo falso en creernos que todo lo podemos entender desde la lógica. En esa conciencia del disparate es por donde yo encuentro mi humor”.

And most importantly you can read the first story of the collection, Como una buena madre, at Culturamas. And finally, there is a long and in depth interview at Lecturas Sumergidas:

¿Estás convencida de que con la felicidad no se puede construir un relato de ficción? Muchas veces tus historias empiezan de un modo muy placentero, muy luminoso, pero siempre hay algo que las tuerce, que las conduce hacia lo oscuro, por decirlo de algún modo.

– Sí. Estoy convencida de que no se puede escribir desde la felicidad. No la encuentro narrativa. La felicidad es puntual, no tiene desarrollo en el tiempo. Con ella se puede construir un hermoso poema lírico, pero en un relato siempre ha de pasar algo malo. Si no es así nos quedamos sin cuento (risas).

– Otra cosa que te gusta mucho es jugar al contraste, ya sea de planos temporales (el pasado y el presente vistos a través de la mirada de una persona que recuerda, que rememora instantes vividos), ya sea a través de los estados de ánimo enfrentados que buscas provocar en el lector: La risa que se congela ante situaciones que estremecen, que llegan a poner los pelos de punta…

– Aquí hay dos preguntas en una. Por una parte, respecto a lo primero que se plantea, creo que los seres humanos estamos hechos de recuerdos. La memoria nos constituye, y el recordar, el vivir simultáneamente en varios tiempos, es una característica tan humana como saber que alguna vez vamos a morir. Sí, evidentemente, es un registro que me gusta mucho, aunque no sea muy consciente de ello cuando me pongo a escribir. En cuanto a lo de la conjunción entre humor y horror, resulta que para mí están absolutamente entrelazados. Las circunstancias más terribles pueden hacernos reír en un determinado momento. El humor es, además, una característica muy mía, forma parte de mi personalidad. No puedo escribir sin humor y al mismo tiempo tengo una suerte de placer infantil en relatar acontecimientos truculentos (carcajadas). Me gusta que a mis personajes les sucedan cosas tremendas, espectaculares. Como lectora admiro muchísimo a los autores que crean climas sutiles a partir de una situación en la que no pasa prácticamente nada. Arrancan de ahí y son  capaces de montar catedrales, término que nos hace recordar a Carver. Pero cuando yo me pongo a escribir prefiero, sin duda alguna, los acontecimientos truculentos, las escenas terribles, las situaciones muy violentas. Y, al mismo tiempo, todo eso lo puedo contar con un cierto humor, porque lo veo así. En la peor situación encuentro siempre algo con lo que reírme.

Guadalupe Nettel Has Won the Ribera del Duero Prize for Short Stories

Guadalupe Nettel has won the Ribera del Duero prize for short stories. The judging panel was Enrique Vila-Matas, Cristina Grande, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Samanta Schweblin, and Marcos Giralt Torrente. I’m not familiar with her work but if a panel of authors I respect have selected her, I think her work might be worth looking at. The Press release says the book is 5 long short stories that uses a structural device to tie the stories together: the presence of a domestic animal which partly represent the complex links that exist between humans and animals. This is from the press release at Paginas de Espuma:

Cinco relatos extensos forman Historias naturales, un libro con una excusa estructural: en todos ellos coincide la presencia de un animal doméstico (desde peces a insectos, pasando por gatos o serpientes), que intenta por una parte representar los complejos vínculos que existen entre animales y seres humanos, pero que, sobre todo, sirven como metáfora o comparación de determinadas actitudes de los personajes

El Pais has a little more about the book. I think the invasion of cockroaches that starts a class war sounds funny:

Un matrimonio convive en un pequeño piso de París mientras espera el nacimiento de su hijo. Ella pasa las horas mirando a sus dos peces. Es tan exhaustivo el ejercicio que termina por encontrar una serie de paralelismos entre sus mascotas y su vida de pareja. Una familia burguesa y mexicana sufre una invasión de cucarachas. La epidemia termina por convertirse en una lucha de clases en una gran casa-laboratorio social. Estos dos relatos forman parte de Historias naturales, la obra –de título provisional- con la que la escritora mexicana Guadalupe Nettel (Ciudad de México, 1973) ha ganado el III Premio Internacional de Narrativa Breve Ribera del Duero que organiza la editorial Páginas de Espuma, especializada en el género del cuento en español, y que entrega al ganador 50.000 euros. La obra se publicará a comienzos de mayo y se presentará oficialmente en la Feria del Libro de Madrid.

“Aún sigo atónita”, dice la escritora. “Supongo que me presenté por el prestigio que ha adquirido el premio en pocos años y por el dinero, claro”, ríe. Nettel no tenía muchas pistas del jurado y tampoco confiaba mucho en poder ganarlo, menos cuando se enteró de que en esta convocatoria se habían presentado 863 trabajos, provenientes de 26 países diferentes. Luego descubrió que entre los encargados de juzgar sus cinco relatos largos estaría Enrique Vila-Matas, acicate suficiente para correr el riesgo. “Los cinco relatos destacan por la alta calidad de su prosa, impecable tensión narrativa y unas atmósferas en las que lo anómalo se aposenta en lo cotidiano”, ha dicho el escritor, a la postre, presidente del jurado.




Short Story Black Holes by Samanta Schweblin up at Contemporary Argentine Writers

Dario at Contemporary Argentine Writers has published a translation of Samanta Schweblin’s Black Holes from her collection El Núcleo del Disturbio.

Dr. Ottone halts in the corridor and begins to balance on the balls of his feet, very slowly at first, with his eyes fixed on one of the hospital’s black and white floor tiles, and so Dr. Ottone is thinking. Then he makes up his mind, returns to his office, switches on the lights, leaves his things on the couch and rummages through the papers on his desk until he finds Mrs. Fritchs’ file, and so Dr. Ottone is preoccupied with a certain case and has determined to resolve it, to find an answer or, at the very least, to refer the patient to another doctor, for instance, Dr. Messina. He opens the file, looks for a specific page, finds it and reads: “… Black holes. Do you understand what I’m saying? Like, you’re here, and then suddenly you’re at home, in bed, with your pajamas on, and you know for certain that you haven’t locked up the office or turned off the lights or traveled the distance you had to travel to get home; what’s more, you haven’t even seen me off. So, how could you possibly find yourself in bed with your pj’s on? Well, that’s an empty space, a black hole is what I say, zero hour, whatever you want to call it. What else could it be? …” 


“An Unlucky Man” by Samanta Schweblin Translated at Contemporary Argentine Writers Blog

Update 1/30/2013

Schweblin’s has expressed interest in finding a forum for publishing the story. As such Bard has been asked to take the translation down for the time being. When ever the story is published I will be sure to let you know. Dario’s blog is still worth taking a look at.

Edited Post

The new and interesting blog Contemporary Argentine Writers has published a translation of Samanta Schweblin’s prize wining story An Unlucky Man. As anyone who has read this blog knows, I’m a fan of her work. A few of her stories have made it into English. Dario Bard has translated her recent prize winning story at his blog. It is a good translation and well worth reading.


You can see all my Schweblin coverage here.