“These days, my notion of the fantastic is closer to what we call reality,” Julio Cortázar observed shortly before his death. “Perhaps because reality approaches the fantastic more and more.” A generation later, another bold Argentinean writer is exploring the boundary between strange and familiar, uncanny and mundane, discovering eerie vistas along the way.
Samanta Schweblin draws readers into a recognizable world inhabited by people with computers and shopping lists, good intentions and reasonable expectations. In spare, lucid prose, Schweblin demonstrates again and again that she knows the weight of what is left unsaid in the comings and goings of everyday life. Then, in the turn of a phrase, she forces the reader to shift perspective; she has a gift for sketching comfortable worlds and then disrupting them with images of dark, startling power.
“Birds in the Mouth” (Pájaros en la boca), the title story of Schweblin’s second collection, is narrated by a seemingly reliable divorced father who’s worried sick about his thirteen-year-old daughter and her mysterious appetites. The narrative moves swiftly; with compressed dialogue and remarkably few visual details,“Birds in the Mouth” sometimes evokes the screenplays Schweblin wrote at the University of Buenos Aires. She makes it easy for readers to feel at home with the familial connections and disconnections, pulled along by laconic humor and a seductive undertow of fear. It’s clear from reading this bilingual collaboration that translator Joel Streicker—who received a 2011 grant from PEN’s translation fund—understands the wit, the poetry, and the menace in her work.
The daughter, it turns out, eats birds. Live birds. And the trustworthy narrator occasionally mentions details about himself that seem a bit off-key. When I first encountered this story, I found myself, almost without realizing it, pushed to look at the family from unexpected angles and finally forced to ask questions about the characters, their world, and my own. How do we ask for attention from those we need? How do we give enough of ourselves to those who need us? What sorts of nourishment, and how much, must we have to survive? What is normal? What is forbidden?
Samanta Schweblin has said that Flannery O’Connor influenced her, and she has mastered one of her forebear’s famous directives: “You can’t clobber the reader while he’s looking. You divert his attention, then you clobber him and he never knows what hit him.” “Birds in the Mouth” well and truly clobbered me, and I’m happy to have experienced this story at PEN America, a journal that makes such clobbering probable.