Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin
translated by Megan McDowell
Riverhead Books, 2019; 228 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
A collection of absurd short fiction works to pass itself off as normal in the face of its own characters in Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds. The stories are set in plain backgrounds (fields, suburban homes, a visit from Santa Claus), and then quietly, carefully turned slightly counter-clockwise to surprise not only the reader but to surprise the protagonist, or even the villain. Schweblin changes one small detail, and then another small detail, and then the reader and the characters sit up (not sit back) and react. This method of instilling an absurd element to the mundane smacks of The Stepford Wives, but not only does she pick on the brainwashing of women, but the brainwashing of men and children. Only animals seem to escape the absurd in confused perception, but not as victims of what the characters do in reaction to the absurd or as part of the requirements for staying in a strange world.
Should we compare Schweblin to other authors of the absurd, or even claim her to be of the dystopian camp? To take either of these tacks would be a dismissal; to just call her absurd in an echo of Kafka removes the credibility of normalcy that she tries to establish, and to call her dystopian would be a shortcut to dismissing her hope that occasionally bubbles to the surface. If anything, Schweblin genre assignment could be best described as of The Twilight Zone, Hitchcock, or film noire; in the short story “Butterflies” parents who gather at a school to pick up their children at the end of the day to take home lose their children to a transformation that’s hinted from the beginning:
“You’ll see, my girl is wearing such a pretty dress today” . . .
“Stay here, you have to stick close because they are about to come out . . .”
The doors will open any second now and the children will burst out . . . in a tumult of colors, some spotted with paint . . .
A brownish butterfly lands . . . and he quickly traps it . . . he slides his fingers down and sees that he has marked [the wings] . . . one of them splits down the middle . . . Calderon lets go . . . the butterfly drops to the ground . . . Calderon, for its own good, of course, stomps on it.
Reminisce of the unprovoked revenge of a Twilight Zone episode, of course, the parents are clustered close to the school because the children will either emerge as butterflies (how often does this happen, one wonders, when no one else but the father Calderon seems amazed) or will be analogous to butterflies in their actions when they come out of the school doors, and perhaps be mistaken for butterflies in the worst ways? Schweblin does not want us to be too comfortable with the normal for long, but she also does not want us to cozy up to the resulting image of the strange; what could mean a transformation to one reader could mean an interpretation to another. She reaches across a bridge, linking the fascination of a story well told for entertainment’s sake to a story well told for the sake of making a statement. The reader stands at midpoint on that bridge, horrified by Schweblin’s concocted reality, and yet too engrossed to leave it for any other version.