Review: Àlvaro Enrigue on Samanta Schweblin

Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyestranslated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell—tells interlaced stories in which toys named “kentukis” engage with humans in different households. These kentukis are fussy, purring, tender-eyed robots, controlled by an anonymous random person who bought a card and a tablet elsewhere on the globe in order to live vicariously a pet’s life. At first sight the book is a fable about submission, about the pathetic way in which we all surrendered our privacy, not only to corporations and states, but to other citizens scrutinizing us in the social networks, in exchange for a pocket computer that grants us the right to watch soccer matches on the bus, chat with people we like, bully people we don’t, and buy things that should not even exist.

In the typical way Schweblin’s stories tend to generate moral discomfort, this one throws clinical light over almost normal behaviors that, described in her clean-cut prose, probe how when we let down our guard, human flaws tend to return dressed in a tragic gown. Behind the kentukis of Little Eyes there are the Darwinian entrepreneurs who see a business opportunity where most of us see a person in need, the expected voyeurs, our nosy acquaintances who tend to think that knowledge of one another’s intimacies can somehow save the neighborhood—or the world. But there are also traumatized people desperate to find a cure for a painful wound, involuntary loners who might benefit from the interaction with other solitudes, abandoned elderly people, broken kids. Schweblin being the kind of writer she is, her victims can be caught being selfish tormentors and her cold-blooded cynics being heroes, depending on where she places her readers in the turn of the plot.

Samanta Schweblin comes from the margins of the Argentine literary establishment. She worked in film before becoming a writer; she didn’t go through the rites of passage of the Argentine theoretical literature schools that still provide the world with professors imbued with a mysterious Lacanian aura; she has lived in Germany for a long time. Her concise and effective way of organizing a sentence, in which characters are displayed as if they are actors in an experimental play, and a tilted-down point of view that provides the reader with a vantage for studying the absurd nature of human behavior, recalls Argentine fiction giants with less global attention like Hebe Uhart and Juan José Saer. But Schweblin has her own, unique voice, recently reinvented as a novelist’s after winning enormous recognition in short fiction—a kind of author commanding so much respect in Latin America that there is a separate word for them: cuentistas. If in her recent Fever Dream she extended a short story long enough to make out of it a novella, in Little Eyes she proposes a much more interesting hybrid form: a book composed of different narrative lines with their own plots, characters, and locations, interconnected by the presence of the kentukis.

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Schweblin’s clinical manner of telling, her just-revealed dexterity at sustaining the tension of a story for a longer narrative period, and her extraordinary cuentista talent for turning a world upside down in one sentence, make of Little Eyes an intriguing trip with an explosive end. Thanks to its hybrid form, the novel is a lesson in narrative contention, as it accumulates energy for its eye-popping conclusion. Everyday life, after all, feels normal until a piece of the puzzle reveals that it isn’t.

The perfect execution and charged premise embedded in the narrative system of Little Eyes gives Schweblin double powers as a fabulist and as a social critic in a time governed by anxiety. Here she inscribes her work in the lineage of two generally overlooked, mythical books in the Latin American tradition. Teresa de la Parra’s Mama Blanca’s Memoirs and Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho, are formal experiments of the early twentieth century that could be read either as novels or books of short stories. Both were meditations on historical periods of social distress and both used a fragmentary form to throw light on how communities reimagine their ways of doing things under the weight of an external force—in de la Parra’s case the ferocious modernization of early twentieth-century Venezuela, in Campobello’s the arrival of the Mexican Revolution in a small town. Both should be continental classics—at least Cartucho is a round, unquestionable, brutal masterpiece—and are not.

The tide has changed. Schweblin is a leading figure in the transformation of the Latin American literary field from one in which only male writers were given any global attention to one in which the decisive voices belong to women. Authors like Yuri Herrera, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Alejandro Zambra have commanded well-deserved attention and world-wide critical praise, but it is crystal clear that the voices leading change in the continent are female. In Argentina’s literary landscape in addition to Schweblin there are Mariana Enríquez, María Gainza, and Leila Guerriero; in Mexico there are Valeria Luiselli, Fernanda Melchor, Guadalupe Nettel, and Cristina Rivera Garza, while Nona Fernández and Lina Meruane have transformed the way we perceive Chilean writing—and I could keep going, Republic after Republic, with a long continental etcetera.

In Little Eyes all characters have their own very sad human stories and the book is really about these. It can be read as a novel because the characters (mostly) meet in the fragmentary, unregulated space where surveilled and surveillers come together—a global Wild West of sorts where social conventions and rules are made up on the go. Little Eyes is, then, a social analysis played in fictional key, exposing how we act when we are savagely free to do what we please, as well as the fragility of our convictions and the ways new forms of mediation—here, social-network surveillance, but it could as easily be transformations in political speech or lives upended by a major health crisis—reveal that, contrary to our self-perception, we were mercenaries and pirates all along, who can, in luminous moments, act like saints. The conclusion of Schweblin’s investigation, as Carlos Monsiváis used to say with unrivaled precision, will not document the reader’s optimism.

Àlvaro Enrigue is the author of five novels, three books of short stories, and one of literary criticism in Spanish; among these his novels Sudden Death and Hypothermia have been translated into English. He was born in Mexico and lives in New York City.

Book notes
In an editorial on the website Words Without Borders this month the translator Aaron Robertson makes a wide-ranging proposal for a kind of mutual aid for Black translators, taking the call for a more representative US book industry to the international stage. Robertson is the translator of of Beyond Bablyon, a novel by Igiaba Scego, a contemporary Italian writer of Somali parentage that treats diasporic experiences in Italy, Somalia, and Argentina. His work was supported by a PEN/Michael Heim translation grant and published in San Francisco by Two Lines Press, a project of the San Francisco non-profit, Center for the Art of Translation, philanthropically funded entities all.

Robertson’s ideas are so interesting on many levels. Translation is probably the least renumerative layer in literary life, competing with poetry, I suppose, hence distilling a certain element of the industry’s stubborn resistance to creating opportunity: the enduring centrality of informal social relationships in a resource-poor environment. The self-reinforcing clubbiness of so many of our underfunded arts institutions, running on volunteer or near-volunteer labor and the enthusiasms of people who can afford to have such enthusiasms, is a powerful sustainer of received ideas and resistance to newcomers.  It’s within living memory that New York’s men’s-only clubs openly confined business opportunities to a deliberately exclusive elite; the bars of Bushwick and other artsy milieux (when we can go to them) serve a similar, if more informal, role in the small world of literary publishing. Culture throughout the genres is dependent on such circles, and yet it is the very lack of “translated” work, both in the literal and figurative sense, that insulates it from news from outside. Robertson puts it gently: “Publishers, many of which are predisposed to view book translation projects as financially risky, prefer to go with translators they know … Publishers need more Black translator friends.”

Given that learning the art of translation, and creating, publishing, and marketing works in translation, is in current conditions at least an act of love, Robertson calls on Black practitioners to build networks of love—sharing knowledge, making introductions, answering each other’s questions, offering advice and experience and support—to offset this historic deficit, creating from within the social energy that has historically been withheld. He makes some great concrete suggestions, like making a web hub for sharing work in progress and a directory of translators working in different languages. He suggests organized outreach to language programs in high schools in majority-Black cities and language departments and creative writing programs in historically Black colleges (“I was once a high schooler interested in languages and literature, but I had no conception of literary translation as a hobby or career, nor a sense of how my interests might have been applied”). Such a group would identify the absence of Black writers and translators and cultures in publishers’ lists, hold publishers to their June 2020 promises of pursuing racial equity, and recognize those who make progress.

Robertson points to some influential precedents, such as the influence of the advocacy group VIDA in calling out the absence of women in books coverage. VIDA shook the lapels of those who tried to argue that slow progress was progress enough. And the Black poets’ group Cave Canem, which was founded to remedy not only the under-representation, but also the isolation of Black writers in poetry. There’s also the work of We Need Diverse Books to identify career opportunities for people of color in children’s books. Last spring the author Celeste Ng, whose book Little Fires Everywhere has been an enduring bestseller and a successful Netflix series, funded two We Need Diverse Books internships. She noted that as the mother of a young multiracial child she saw the urgency of promoting inclusion in decision-making for what children read.

None of this will actually change the financial precarity of publishing works in translation, but at least it loosens the dependence on historic elites. Two years ago I wrote about the supports provided in Europe for translation. This work is officially valued in Europe because a vision of conjoined-yet-distinct cultures is essential to European identity. Hence the Slovenian government, say, gives a picture book to each newborn to support Slovenian literature even as France subsidizes travel expenses and professional development for translators. Such sensitivities have also put Europe at the forefront of the resistance to monopolization and homogenization in the media tech.

Robertson’s message, it seems to me, reaches beyond the field he formulated it for. A publishing system dependent on maximizing returns for a few big players is not going to bring news that unsettles dominant ideas or displaces secure elites—at least we should not count on its largesse to do so. This is why I think so much about the work of local bookstores, librarians, and small publishers (like Two Lines) who connect readers with ideas and nourish more delicate forms of sustenance for idea-spreading. Robinson’s proposal recognizes that the voices that such systems marginalize can be most influential when they come together and begin the work, rather than waiting for those who hold the reins to give permission. What structures—commercial, professional, local—would allow independent voices to thrive, vulnerable cultures to be heard, and the growth of the intellectual environment we need to advance beyond a moment of perilous mutual ignorance and bigotry?

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