Review: Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

“When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her, and, as if the past were a tangible thing, she thinks she can still see the weak reddish glow of the car’s taillights fading on the horizon. In the flat darkness of the countryside, there is only disappointment, a wedding dress, and a bathroom she shouldn’t have taken so long in. Sitting on a rock beside the door, she picks grains of rice from the embroidery on her dress, with nothing to look at but the open fields, the highway, and, beside the highway, a women’s bathroom.” (‘Headlights’)

As I explained in last week’s Monday Musing, I haven’t given a lot of time to short story collections. I have always preferred the lengthy engagement and climactic payoff that comes with a novel. I’m aware, however, that this prejudice against short fiction has caused me to miss out on the impressive intricacies that are typically present in any well-executed collection. As I reflected last Monday, short story writing takes a particular kind of skill. It requires that an author be able to deliver many of the components present in a novel without the same freedom of space and subtle progression. When written with the stark intensity that characterises the most captivating short fiction, however, short stories present an opportunity to engage with a plethora of diverse but delicately connected universes. Allowing such an array of characters and themes to coexist, united but each with its own distinct momentum and emotion, requires skills quite separate from those demanded by novel writing.

While I hadn’t given much thought to indulging further in the world of short stories, I came across Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds as one of the books to watch for in 2019. After reading a little about her reputation and previous works, I was intrigued enough to add her newest story collection to the list of fiction that I was most anticipating in the new year. Schweblin’s literary reputation certainly recommends her. An Argentinian writer living in Berlin, Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. She was celebrated by Granta as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under 35 and has seen her short fiction appear in a variety of publications. These achievements cannot fail to both impress and intrigue. With this in mind, I sought out Mouthful of Birds, utterly unprepared for the disturbingly effective blurring of reality that this collection would impose upon me.

Mouthful of Birds almost defies categorisation. It exists, suspended somewhere between the complex surrealism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the irreverence of Roald Dahl’s adult short stories. The collection is one that dwells less in the directly horrifying and more in the feeling of creeping disbelief that accompanies confidently rendered dystopias. The stories are always strongest when they occupy a space somewhere between these two approaches. Toward Happy Civilization, a story that follows a man stranded at a train station and forced into a bizarrely familial situation with strangers, is one of the collection’s most impressive. It offers all of the dystopian realism of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley, but with a momentum and breathless fear that is peculiarly unique to Samanta Schweblin.

“It’s strange for Gruner to discover a new expression on his companions’ childlike faces, a mixture of anxiety and distrust. Maybe it’s been months, maybe years, they’ve been here; maybe they suspect that they’ve lost everything back in the capital. Wives, children, jobs, homes, everything they had before they got stranded here in this station. Gill’s eyes grow damp, and a tear falls onto the tablecloth. Cho pats Gill on the back a few times and lets him lean his head on his shoulder. Then Gong looks at Gruner; they know Gill and Cho are weak, that they’re worn-out and they no longer believe in the possibility of escape, only in the pitiful consolation of more days in the country.” (‘Toward Happy Civilization’)

What unites each of the stories as a collection is a question open to discussion. Although there are a number of themes that reappear across pages, the most unifying feature of Mouthful of Birds is undoubtedly the feeling of stomach-knotting eeriness that transcends each piece. Schweblin is a master in generating emotion and it is no surprise that both sensation and reaction serve as her starting points: “I have a very specific emotion that I want to hand to the reader with the same specificity, the same weight, the same colors, exactly. I want to put it inside you. and the plot is only the bridge that gets you there; it could be a bridge in any form,” (Interview with Electric Literature). That Schweblin is able to conjure this universal sharing of emotions among her readers is a testament to her remarkable skill. It also corroborates what reviewers and critics have identified as a unique ‘vision’ that positions Schweblin as an internationally significant author.

Although none of the stories in Mouthful of Birds fall flat, there are pieces that execute Schweblin’s vision with far greater success. The opening story, Headlights, shows a woman abandoned on the side of a highway, following her wedding. The disembodied voices of women also left stranded post-nuptials haunt the story and create an atmosphere of foreboding that practically lifts the words off of the page. The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides is similarly transcendent in its execution. This story introduces us to Benavides, a man who has killed his wife and put her body into a suitcase. He carries the suitcase to his doctor – and, one assumes, psychiatrist – who proceeds to turn the murder into a public work of art. It is a fascinating story, verging on thought experiment, that pushes the boundaries of what can be achieved in just 27 pages.

“The euphoria is uncontainable. People shove, try to climb onstage. A dozen men in blue form a barrier that blocks their advance. But the audience wants to see, and the barrier gives way. Excitement. Commotion. Something emanates from that work and it drives them mad. The sovereign image of the purple body. Death a few feet away. Human flesh, human skin. Giant thighs. Coiled in a suitcase.” (‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’)

For a collection with 20 stories, only a couple left little impression. Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House and My Brother Walter felt strangely disconnected from the emotions generated by the other pieces, perhaps because they were the stories that strayed furthest from the space between reality and surrealism. Although excellent stories in their own right, they were significantly overshadowed by the power of the remaining pieces and I had a little trouble recalling them after finishing the book.

Beyond the vision that Schweblin executes so superbly in Mouthful of Birds, she must be recognised for her incredible economy of words. Any reader or student of short fiction should read Schweblin for a lesson in the efficacy of stripped back and unindulgent prose. One of her most impressive and memorable stories, Butterflies, stands at just three pages. Yet it generates both the momentum and creeping fear that accompanies all of her longer stories. The prose in Mouthful of Birds is masterful at pointing to the absences that lend the collection its visceral suspense. Schweblin is able to extract entire worlds from the premise of an emotion and do so without wasting a word. Mouthful of Birds is an incredible feat and an incredibly effective argument for short fiction as an art that deserves popular attention.

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