In Captivity

Anna MacDonald reviews Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds (trans. Megan McDowell)

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds.
Translated by Megan McDowell.
Oneworld Publications, £12.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

In the title story of Samanta Schweblin’s ferociously good collection, Mouthful of Birds (trans. Megan McDowell), a man buys a small bird for his daughter, Sara, who at the age of thirteen has begun to eat only live sparrows. The pet shop from which he makes his purchase includes with it a breeder’s pamphlet: “On the back was information about how to care for the bird, and about its reproduction cycles. [It] emphasized the species’ need to be in pairs during warm months, and the things one can do to make the years in captivity as pleasant as possible.” Standing at the door to Sara’s bedroom, looking over the pamphlet with its care instructions, the narrator hears “a brief shriek”, which indicates that his daughter is feeding. The inference is clear: this bird will not be captive long.

But others in this collection will be — are — and Schweblin’s stories catalogue lives lived in captivity more or (more often) less pleasantly. In ‘Toward Happy Civilization’, office workers lacking the correct change for their return train fare to the capital are held captive by the station master and his wife, for whom they become surrogate children bound to work the surrounding fields, to feed the dog, to hunt rabbits for the makeshift family’s midday and evening meals. In ‘Headlights’, newlywed brides are deserted by their husbands at a women’s bathroom on the highway. Bereft, arrested in the moment of abandonment, they gather in the fields, “wailing and plaintive”, repeating “the names of their husbands over and over”. In ‘Rage of Pestilence’, a civil servant travels the border territories to gather census details from “poor communities” who, for their trouble, are “remunerated with food”. At one remote village, with a palm full of sugar he releases the population from their indifference to suffering and unleashes upon them “the memory of hunger”. And in ‘My Brother Walter’, a family’s increasing good fortunes appear to depend upon the deep and persistent depression of the narrator’s brother. At weekend barbeques, near and extended relations gather around Walter “to cheer him up or keep him company” while taking pains “to talk about more or less superficial subjects, and always optimistically”. Walter, meanwhile, caught in the glare of his family’s oppressive goodwill, sits wearing “a baleful expression, sadder and sadder all the time”.

Weird and often surrealistic, Schweblin’s stories render the lives captured in them uncannily familiar, and her blisteringly dark humour illuminates the absurdity of contemporary life. In Mouthful of Birds, parents and their children, workers and their supervisors, artists and their audiences struggle within, and against, the confinement of their being in relation to one another. Thus, in a vein that will be familiar to readers of Schweblin’s horror novella, Fever Dream (also translated by McDowell, and shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017), a father crushes the daughter he holds most dear, in the story ‘Butterflies’. In ‘The Size of Things’, an adult man regresses to infancy in the company of his overbearing mother. In ‘On the Steppe’, a childless couple spend their days concocting fertility recipes and their nights hunting in the surrounding wilderness, stalking an unspecified “them”, ready with a net to capture “ours”. Again, in ‘A Great Effort’, a father and his adult son are finally released from their injurious bond by the deft “surgical movement” of a massage therapist.

Work — including the work of art — is a recurring concern of Schweblin’s. It is possible to read across this collection an argument both for the value of labour and against the alienation of workers from themselves, and (via) that labour. In the remarkable story ‘Olingiris’, for instance, women visit “the institute” to salve their trichotillomania against the body of another. Under clinically regulated conditions, a woman lies naked, face down on a cot, while six others “get to work”, tweezering the hairs from her legs:

They hold the tweezers poised over the woman’s body, quickly choose a hair, and lower them, open, decisive. They close, pinch, yank. The dark bulb comes out clean and perfect. They study it a second… then go for the next one. Six seagulls’ beaks pulling fish from the sea. The hair in the tweezers fills them with pleasure. Some of them do the work to perfection. The whole hair hangs from the tweezers, orphaned and useless. Others struggle a bit with the task and have to try more than once. But nothing deprives them of their pleasure

The pleasurable work of closing, pinching, yanking elides the actual, paid labour of “the woman on the cot” and “the assistant” who monitors her, making a note of any unwitting tremors, “infractions” that are penalised by docking the prone woman’s pay. From the white room, the cot, and “the squeak of the [assistant’s] rubber sandals stopping short” as she records another tremor, the narrative shifts first to the biography of the woman on the cot, then to that of the assistant. As children, both were preoccupied with fish. One grew up among fishermen, on the banks of a river susceptible to . The other had a passion for the exotic Olingiris but was refused a pet because her mother believed that, in captivity, the fish “would die of sadness”. This is the sadness of alienation, which abandons the assistant to the role of captor and the woman on the cot to the mercy of “six seagulls’ beaks pulling fish from the sea”.

The dehumanising effects of institutionalised work are represented elsewhere in Mouthful of Birds, often in relation to animals. ‘The Test’, in which the coolly sadistic Mole assesses a job applicant’s willingness to do violence, is a particularly caustic example of this. But in other stories, among them ‘Towards Happy Civilization’, the value of certain varieties of labour is brought into startling relief. For, although the stranded office workers are held against their will by the station master and his wife, the lives they lead with them are sinisterly comfortable, the food they help to gather and prepare is Grimm-like in its succulence, and the work they do in the surrounding fields is healthy and, at least superficially, fulfilling. As a result, looking back from the departing train after they have finally made their escape, the men cannot help but wonder if the scene they are leaving behind them looks something like the “happy civilization” they believed they were instead moving towards.

Often in Schweblin’s imagined universe, conventionally anomalous events illuminate the aberrant nature of the world lived beyond the page. Thus, in ‘Mouthful of Birds’, Sara’s grotesque feeding habits — her “nose, chin, and both hands… smeared with blood” and her “gigantic mouth arch[ing] and open[ing]” to reveal her “red teeth” — leave her radiant with good health. In contrast, her father compulsively roams the supermarket isles, subsists largely on canned foods, and begins to wonder “if it was really worth it to fill [his cart] with so much garbage”. Similarly, in ‘Preserves’, a woman who finds herself prematurely pregnant searches for a way to delay the birth of her daughter. Marvelling at a world in which a person can thaw “a fresh fish that died thirty days ago”, she and her husband look for, and discover, a means to “make a small change in the order of events”. Such narratives illuminate the extraordinary character of the apparently everyday.

But it is in stories like ‘Heads Against Concrete’ and ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’ that the worlds on and beyond the page collide most savagely. Here, Schweblin considers the problem of art and its industry, which recasts a violent impulse as “the work” in order to turn a profit. ‘Heads Against Concrete’ chronicles the misadventures of an artist who, as a socially awkward boy, would occasionally vent his frustration by “pound[ing] a person’s head against concrete”. On one such occasion he experienced an “illumination”, which led him instead to paint “in extreme close-up” a pounded head in lieu of the physical act of violence. Now, still socially awkward, the narrator’s paintings have brought him considerable successes, including “a loft in downtown Buenos Aires” and a gallerist who visits everyday to offer words of encouragement: “You’re a mega-genius. A me-ga ge-nius”. Naturally, the artist suffers a relapse, and the art industry attempts to turn this, too, to profit.

Likewise, in ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’, when a man who has murdered his wife and stuffed her body into a suitcase shows his psychiatrist what he has done, he is lauded as an artist, not a criminal, and “the work” is celebrated as “truly beautiful”. Schweblin’s razor-sharp wit cuts through the ludicrous discourse of the contemporary art market, as a curator and his team of handlers descend upon the suitcase and prepare it for a sycophantic audience:

“I’m just a curator, my part is minimal. The important thing here is the work, Violence, understand?”

“My wife.”

“No, Benavides, believe me, I know marketing and that won’t work. The title is Violence.”

“But I killed her…”

“Yes, Benavides, yes. We know it was you, no one is going to take that away from you. … Trust us with this, you’ll just see how you take your place among the stars.”

In both stories, these men become alienated from their natural — if criminal — acts by an industry that sees in the real only a form of representation. When the artist of ‘Heads Against Concrete’ pounds the skull of a man into one of his own canvases, an interviewer asks after the “aesthetic intention” of this act. And Benavides, who finally accepts “the work” of Violence and his place among the stars, is rewarded by witnessing “a chasm open… in front of him [that] separates him from the rest of humanity”.

In ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’, art is conceived of as “anxiety contained”. But, like the palm full of sugar proffered by the well-meaning civil servant in ‘A Rage of Pestilence’, Schweblin’s stories unleash that anxiety and turn it to radical effect. A Mouthful of Birds conveys the real violence of the world beyond the page: in one person’s captive relation to another, at work, and via the work of art.