After a brief recap of trips to Poland and South Korea, our Man Booker International Prize longlist journey gets underway properly today with the first of the post-longlist reviews. This time we’re off to Argentina for a series of stops in which we get to meet a wide selection of local people. However, these are not your average folk, and there’s something rather disturbing going on almost everywhere you look. And as for the food…
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin
– Oneworld Publications, translated by Megan McDowell
What’s it all about?
Schweblin’s creepy, fast-paced novel Fever Dream was one of the highlights of my 2017 reading, so it was little surprise to see this one make the 2019 longlist. Mouthful of Birds, a collection of twenty stories running to around 230 pages, is actually an earlier work, but there’s a lot connecting it to the novel, including the writer’s ability to unsettle the reader, with characters behaving in rather strange ways. There’s a wide range of situations on display, with few actually pinned down in terms of time and place, but it’s fair to say that most of them are a little… well, unusual.
Eerie is a word that comes to mind when describing Schweblin’s work, and there are several examples of that here. From the opening piece, ‘Headlights’, featuring moaning phantom women by a deserted highway, to ‘On the Steppe’, in which a couple on the hunt for an unspecified creature meet up with another couple who have already achieved their goal, the writer delights in creating bizarre situations that disturb the reader. In addition, as is shown in ‘Underground’, a story of the mysterious disappearance of children in a mining town, Schweblin is never afraid to end a story without revealing any of its secrets.
There are some slightly more ‘normal’ pieces included in the book, though. ‘Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House’ is a clever story of a marital break-up seen through a child’s eyes, while ‘My Brother Walter’ examines a family’s (and a community’s) successful life, with just one depressed individual acting as a gloomy reminder that things could always go another way:
Although I recognize the relief, my legs are shaking. I almost feel like we could die, all of us, for some reason, and I can’t stop thinking about what’s wrong with Walter, what it is that could be so terrible.
‘My Brother Walter’, p.122 (Oneworld Publications, 2019)
In a story with a cheery tone, success leading to success, the narrator’s brother still manages to send shivers up the spine.
Most of the stories clock in at somewhere around ten pages, but there are several impressive shorter pieces, over in a matter of pages. ‘Rage of Pestilence’ shows a census worker in a remote community, and what he finds there (mostly dust and silence), while ‘Slowing Down’ is a clever two-scene take on the death of a man who used to work as a human cannonball. Perhaps the best of these is ‘Butterflies’, a wonderful piece of micro-fiction starring two men waiting for their children to finish school, and a single butterfly…
Schweblin’s style means the stories aren’t always successful, and at times they can be almost perversely impenetrable. One example of this is ‘Olingiris’, a strange tale of women plucking hairs from another woman’s legs (for fun), accompanied by two back-stories, neither of which seem to take us anywhere. The strangeness continues, and is amplified, in ‘The Digger’:
“Are you going to dig?” he repeated.
“I’ll help you. You dig for a while and I’ll take over when you’re tired.”
“The hole is yours,” he said. “You can’t dig.”
‘The Digger’, p.59
I’m sure there’s a lot going on beneath the surface, but this one felt like something a hybrid Murakami/Kafka-bot might come up with 😉
However, when Schweblin gets this Kafkaesque mood right, the results can be excellent. The last, and longest, story, ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’, begins with a mentally ill man murdering his wife, yet when he lugs her body over to his doctor’s home in a suitcase, the reactions his crime elicits are definitely not what you’d expect. Another of the better stories is ‘Toward Happy Civilization’, one with Kafka’s fingerprints all over it. Here, a man at a country train station is unable to buy a ticket because he has no change. What follows is a stay in a town where the train never stops, working together with a group of men who find themselves unable to leave.
I suspect, though, that for many readers the overriding memory of the collection will come from the title story. ‘Mouthful of Birds’ has a divorced man answering his ex-wife’s call to come and take their teenage daughter away. The woman is unable to cope, and we soon see why:
With her back to us, standing on her tiptoes, she opened the cage and took out the bird. I couldn’t see what she did. The bird screeched and she struggled for a moment, maybe because it was trying to escape. Silvia covered her mouth with her hand. When Sara turned back to us, the bird wasn’t there anymore. Her mouth, nose, chin, and both hands were smeared with blood.
‘Mouthful of Birds’, p.32
That’s not the end of the story, though. The man is forced to take his daughter home, and in a truly tense tale, he’s forced to decide how to cope with the situation – and wonder how wrong it actually is to sustain oneself in this manner…
While not always successful, the stories in Mouthful of Birds show the stamp of a writer with a distinctive style. Not recommended for bedtime reading, there’s something slightly off about all of these tales. Still, when Schweblin gets it right, it makes for excellent storytelling, and she does get it right more often than not 🙂
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Not for me. Most of you will know my preference for (lengthy) novels by now, and a short-story collection has to be really top-notch to get my seal of approval. There are some excellent stories in Mouthful of Birds, but there’s also a fair amount of padding, with some efforts forgotten once the page is turned. I suspect that this wouldn’t have received as much attention if it had been published before Fever Dream, and I don’t think it should go further here.
Will it make the shortlist?
It’s possible. The fact that two collections made the longlist suggests that at least one (and probably more) of the judges has a liking for shorter fiction. If so, there’s a fair chance that one of the two might make the shortlist, and having Schweblin make the cut again will make a lot of people happy 🙂
Having managed to extract ourself from some pretty sticky situations, we head on to yet another. The next leg of our journey will take us to North Africa, where a couple of tourists on a voyage of discovery end up with far more than they bargained for. That’s right, kids – it’s another book about death. See you on the other side (of the Mediterranean…).