‘Kentukis’ (‘Little Eyes’) by Samanta Schweblin (Review- IBP 2020, Number Seven)

Well, as we saw last time out, the drugs don’t work, so I suppose we need to find another way to banish our existential ennui – and the latest leg of our expansive global International Booker Prize longlist journey might just provide the answer.  This time around, we’re going to explore whether technology could be the answer to our problems (and what with everything that’s happening at present, it seems as good a plan as any).  However, like anything that promises to take away all your worries, the truth is another matter, and even if our latest solution to world-weariness has a bright fluffy exterior, there’s still a very fallible, human element inside…

*****
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin
– Oneworld Publications, translated by Megan McDowell
(I read a library copy of the Spanish-language edition, Kentukis, from Penguin Random House)

What’s it all about?
Little Eyes is a novel based on a simple premise, that of the invention of toys called ‘kentukis’.  These small robot-like devices, designed to resemble creatures such as pandas, rabbits and moles, are actually internet-controlled machines connecting two people in different parts of the world.  One person buys the kentuki, charges it up and waits.  Then, someone else buys a card, registers it and connects.  The kentuki comes to life, and a new relationship is born between the person ‘being’ the kentuki and the one ‘owning’ it.

It sounds simple enough, and it is, with the idea being for two complete strangers (the connection is entirely random) making contact, even if one side cannot talk and the other cannot see who’s at the other end.  The owner gets a new pet that follows them around and provides company, while the person behind the keyboard is able to see into another person’s life, even obtaining glimpses of cities they could never have imagined visiting.  And yet, as Schweblin will show us, once the novelty wears off, this relationship forces both sides to take a look at their lives and wonder why they’ve resorted to connecting with a total stranger.

Rather than following a straight narrative, Little Eyes consists of a number of short sections, with a mix of one-off stories woven around five core narratives.  In these, we have an old Peruvian lady watching a beautiful young German (and disapproving of her new boyfriend); a divorced Italian man forced to take on a kentuki to keep his son company; a naughty schoolboy from Antigua who goes on a quest to see snow instead of doing his homework; an enterprising small ‘businessman’ from Zagreb, trading kentuki accounts; and a young woman in Mexico, using her new toy to alleviate her boredom while her artist partner works on a new installation.

Schweblin’s previous works in English (Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds) were pervaded by a fear-inducing darkness, and this latest work is no different.  From the very first section, in which three American teenagers attempt to make contact with their kentuki (using, appropriately, an improvised ouija board), the writer shows that you can never be too sure who’s in control.  The girls try to persuade the toy’s controller to help them blackmail a classmate; instead it reveals some of their own secrets:

Había que seguirlo letra por letra, no podian dejar de mirarlo.
PADREDICIENDOCOSASACHICALIMPIEZA
Amy y Katia miraban fascinadas el baile sobre el tablero, pacientes en la espera de cada nueva humilliación.
ROBINDESNUDAYROBINHABLANDOMALDEAMYPORTELEFON
Amy y Katia se miraron.  Después la miraron a ella, ya no sonreían.
p.14 (Penguin Random House, 2018)

They had to follow it letter by letter, they couldn’t stop watching it.
FATHERSAYINGTHINGSTOTHECLEANINGLADY
Amy and Katia watched the dance across the table in fascination, waiting patiently for each new humiliation.
ROBINNAKEDROBINSAYINGBADTHINGSABOUTAMYONTHETELEPHONE
Amy and Katia exchanged glances.  Then they looked at her, they were no longer smiling.
*** (my translation)

When confronted by a fluffy toy about a foot high, it’s easy to forget that there’s someone inside that camera, and it could be anyone…

These separate pieces actually provide some of the best moments of the book, making for discrete short stories set in the kentuki world.  There are kentuki unwrappings that go horribly wrong, and users who take one look at their new surroundings and decide that they’d rather jump in a pond than stay there.  One I particularly enjoyed was a romance between two users who meet as kentukis on the other side of the world and fall in love.  Alas, their dreams of meeting up are shattered when one of the owners picks up on what’s going on and takes action to stop their plans.

However, the success of the book depends on the development of the core strands, and while Little Eyes is slow to get going (although that might just be because of the time it took me to read it in Spanish), each of these five sections gradually increases in interest and expands in scope, focusing on a different aspect of the relationship between the owner and controller.  One of the most interesting features here is the development of the rules of these relationships, with boundaries being set in different ways by different people.  Some of the owners wrack their brains for ways to communicate with the person behind the camera while others prefer to simply treat the kentuki as a pet.  Of course, it goes both ways, and some of those sitting at their computer or tablet do their best to Google the person they’re watching, for better or for worse.

Part of the joy of Little Eyes is watching some of those behind the camera broaden their horizons.  For Emilia from Peru, in particular, this hobby opens a door to a whole new world:

La levantó sobre su cabeza, alzándola hacia la ventana, y por un momento Emilia vio una ciudad desde lo alto: las calles anchas, las cúpulas de algunas iglesias, los canales de agua, la fuerte luz roja del atardecer cubriéndolo todo.  Emilia abrió grandes los ojos.  Estaba sorprendida, era un movimiento que no había esperado y la imagen de esa otra ciudad la impactó.  Nunca había salido del Perú, jamás en toda su vida si descontaba el viaje a Santa Domingo para el casamiento de su hermana. (p.39)

She lifted the kentuki above her head, putting her near the window, and for a moment Emilia saw a city from above: the wide streets, the domes of several churches, the canals, all immersed in the striking red light of the sunset.  Emilia’s eyes opened wide.  She was amazed, she hadn’t been expecting the movement, and the image of this new city took her breath away.  She had never left Peru, not once in her life if you ignored the trip to Santa Domingo for her sister’s wedding. ***

I was even more taken with Marvin’s story, that of a bored schoolboy using his homework time to escape his dull routine.  While his kentuki initially has the worst situation, being stuck in a shop window, he’s eventually freed and is supported in following his dreams on a quest to see snow.  The day he sets out on his journey is a genuinely heart-warming moment, and it’s not just his kentuki friends that are cheering him on, as most readers will also be wishing him well.

Yet Schweblin is not a writer for happy endings, and these emotional highs are frequently followed by disturbing lows.  One of the main questions the writer poses is whether this kind of relationship can actually make us happy, and whether it’s a mere replacement for something missing in real life.  As we learn more about each of the main characters, we see how the virtual relationships make up for a lack of affection in the outside world: a stern parent, a distant child, a broken marriage.  Most of our new friends are lonely – and that’s why they spend so much time in the company of strangers.

In fact, while the selling points for the story are the furry inventions, in truth Little Eyes is a novel about us, about how we communciate, or avoid communication, by playing with toys.  The kentukis are mere distractions, a means of avoiding communication, and while they provide exciting new experiences in the short term, the digital honeymoon is destined to come to a disappointing end.  Sadly, Schweblin shows us that nobody here is likely to live happily ever after.

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
I’m going to say yes, even if I don’t think it was one of those the judges would really be pushing come the final discussions.  There were times when I wondered just how well the disparate pieces fitted together as a novel, and not everyone will be happy with the book’s open-ended nature.  However, overall it works well, and with much of the world currently in lock-down, the focus on online communication, or a lack thereof, is certainly a timely subject.

Who knows?  Some bright spark might even have these toys in the shops by Christmas 😉

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
I’m a little surprised it didn’t make the cut as it seemed the perfect fit for a shortlisted book, with a writer everyone seems to be a fan of.  Perhaps a glance at the shortlist might suggest, though, that the judges were looking for books with more emotional pull (and a higher death count).  In the end, it might just be the wrong book for this year and this panel of judges.

*****
I’m afraid we’ve lost the connection with our furry friends, so let us quickly be on our way as we have another adventure awaiting us.  Next time, our journey will take us to Iran, and a period of brutality and suffering – and yet…  If you look closely, all is not as it seems – I wonder if we’ll be able to experience something a little more magical in a village near a forest?

I’ll enlighten you all in a couple of days’ time 😉

2 thoughts on “‘Kentukis’ (‘Little Eyes’) by Samanta Schweblin (Review- IBP 2020, Number Seven)

  1. I just finished this last night and I’m even more surprised that it didn’t make the shortlist (at the time I thought it might just based on her celebrity). I thought this was much stronger than Fever Dream (which I found almost impossible to follow – what happened??) or Mouthful of Birds (uneven like most collections). I’ve been reading a lot of reviews and Marvin is a fan favourite. I think I liked Eva/Emilia the best, or maybe Enzo, I didn’t know where either of them were going and I was dying to find out.

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    1. Laura – I wouldn’t say it was as good as ‘Fever Dream’ (my first read of that was a wonderful experience), but it was certainly better than the collection, and probably better than most of the books on last year’s longlist. Just goes to show why there’s a need for a Shadow Panel – and speaking of which, more on that in the not-too-distant future… 😉

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