There’s an unmatched element of fury in Argentine avant-garde author Samanta Schweblin’s writing, especially in her short fiction, that leaves you physically discomfited as a reader. I say fury and not anger because anger is often directed at a particular individual or an idea. Schweblin’s ferocity is an all-encompassing entity in itself, like a bomb exploding in the middle of a city that has the capacity to engulf an entire civilization.
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Mouthful of Birds published in 2019 was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, shortlisted for the Premio Valle Inclan, 2020 and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in 2019. Her Fever Dream which came out in English earlier is possibly a more refined work – an eco-horror novella that is bound to become a classic in the coming years. But in these twenty stories, Schweblin masterfully explores the unexpected outcomes of tense moments with absolute urgency and without a hint of sentimentality.
While Fever unravels gradually, the immediacy of Mouthful is what makes the trepidations more tactile. At least four stories – “Headlights”, “Mouthful of Birds”, “Toward Happy Civilization”, and “Heads Against Concrete”, grab you by the throat and refuse to let go.
The efficacy of these stories is in their briskness and the simple, easy prose, but they aren’t meant for easy reading. You’ll be compelled to look away after every story ends, and want to look at something green and alleviating. But you’d also want to get back to the book soon to move on to the next chapter in the anthology. I also use the word “chapter” cautiously because even though these are all different stories about different people and lives, they are all evidently part of a singular universe
In Parul Sehgal’s review of the book, she had written about how Schweblin herself had suddenly stopped talking when she was twelve years old. Her school had to be served a doctor’s notice so they could allow her to continue with classes. “She has said she was overwhelmed by the gulf between what she wanted to say and what she thought people could understand,” Sehgal writes. This unusual intensity of living is still discernible in her work. Very few artists recognize the power of economy of words as distinctly as Schweblin does. She doesn’t wish to waste a single minute of her reader’s time in overstating or exposition. But once you try to look beyond the violence and strangeness of these cautionary tales, you’ll need to set some time aside for yourself. Both for scrutiny and recovery.