Contained Violence

Born in 1978, Samantha Schweblin is considered one of Argentina’s best young writers. Her first book, the short story collection El núcleo del disturbio (2001), earned critical acclaim. Her second, Pájaros en la boca (2008), which includes the eponymous story that appears here, won the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize. Critics discussing Samanta Schweblin’s slim body of work tend to pile on adjectives like strange and disturbing, her stories residing on the ambiguous frontier between realism and the fantastic. Schweblin’s work is often marked by characters who seem destined to expend tremendous effort to exert control over their worlds, with the most surprising of results.

Schweblin is not given to verbal pyrotechnics, to say the least; economy and clarity characterize her prose. With a few exceptions, the stories take place in undefined, middle-class, Western locales rather than being rooted in specific, recognizable places. And the author describes in only the most minimal way the surroundings her characters inhabit. These settings give her work a theatrical quality: only the most important elements are made visible, and the secondary disappears, as she has noted. But far from sapping the work of vitality, these features of Schweblin’s writing load even more weight onto the tight rope between the real and the fantastic, stretching it to the breaking point.

In response to an interviewer’s observation that her writing often deals with contained violence, Schweblin has said that violence is a symptom and that she is more interested in the fear that lies behind it: “Fear generates a lot of violence. Fear of losing something, fear of learning something new, fear of being wrong, fear of death. I think that literature always deals with fear. That’s what captivates us as readers. It’s a way of facing things that we could only face with difficulty in real life.”

It’s striking that this fear is more existential than tied to particular historical situations. Perhaps Schweblin’s preoccupation with the thin line separating reality and fantasy, and with control, is the product of a society coming to grips with the legacy of a dictatorship that tried brutally to bend society to its particular version of reality. The torture and disappearances, the abuses widely known in their time yet officially unacknowledged until the fall of the dictatorship, also shape a sensibility in which the ordinary rules of life are held in suspense, in which the mundane cedes to the strange, the horrible, and the obscene. While other young Argentine writers, such as Félix Bruzzone, approach this sensibility in their work, Schweblin wholeheartedly, and inimitably, embraces it.

In a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks notes the need to translate into English so much literature that is virtually indistinguishable in its themes, language, and social settings from works produced by English-speaking writers. For Parks, this undercuts literary translation’s lofty pretensions to broadening the English-reading public’s cross-cultural perspectives. It’s as if the literary Trader Joes of America had traveled the world to bring us back works that just as easily could have been set on the Upper West Side. I agree—up to a point.

Part of literary translation’s mission is to engage linguistic others in a common conversation. As Parks notes, in an era of globalization, it shouldn’t be surprising that the literary elite in the non-English-speaking world has many of the same preoccupations, styles, and ambitions as their English-speaking counterparts. What we might anticipate as exotic turns out, in fact, to be familiar. Yet it makes no more sense to dismiss these works for that reason than it does to dismiss any American work of fiction dealing with, say, middle-class domestic unhappiness. (To be clear, Parks was questioning the claim for learning about other cultures through a particular collection of translations that he reviewed rather the literary value of those works themselves, or of literary translation in general.)

What Schweblin brings to this conversation is a talent for de-familiarization. She shows us that our stable, everyday life is stranger and more precarious than we recognize. In Schweblin’s world, the fear lurking just below the surface, whether existential or a form of suppressed and deformed historical memory (or both), is palpable and unsettling. It has made this reader look at the world differently, which is reason enough to want to share it, through translation, with others.