Samanta Schweblin was chosen as one of the twenty-two best writers in Spanish under the age of thirty five by Granta. She is the author of three story collections, which have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into twenty languages. Her first novel, Fever Dream, was released in English early this year. It has already won the Tigre Juan Prize and is currently longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.
Schweblin’s work has been described as “pulsating,” “mysterious,” and “haunting.” Her words are, as she herself indicates is a goal, fully alive in the body of the reader. As such, there is tremendous compassion in her writing — for her characters, for the reader, for the act of making literature.
Originally from Buenos Aires, Schweblin lives in Berlin. We corresponded by email.
In reading your debut novel Fever Dream and as many short stories as I could find in translation into English, it does seem that your desire for “pulling the rug out from under one’s feet,” as you’ve said, is a motivating force in your writing. Can you speak to that? As in, why do you think that’s appealing to you to do?
I like to think of it as a kind of pact between the writer and the reader. The feeling that in each sentence, in each paragraph, the reader gets some beauty from the book in exchange for some darkness that grows in his mind. Or he gets some darkness from the book that obliges him to looks for some beauty in his surroundings. So there is this balance that keeps the reader awake because half of the story is actually happening in his mind. Rebecca Solnit says “a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” I love that feeling as a reader. And I am always trying to create this when I write.
As metaphor for the reading process, Octavio Paz said that it’s in the eating that the apple has its taste. In comparing this with the Solnit, his image is of consumption, metabolizing, eventual excretion. Hers desires to live for a while in the other. When I think of your work as an organ transplanted into the body of the reader, the ways that your writing gets under the skin, this feels right. Are you conscious of your body as you write? Do you feel the stories as you write them?
Absolutely. And of course, it is about listening to the words and the stories, but also that good stories -the ones that really impact us-, they have a particular, anatomic shape that is the best shape for each story to be narrated. And this shape and the way this shape impacts the reader’s body is so organic, it works in such a precise way, that it is impossible for me not to think that the forces of nature are working there. Whenever I try to explain this I sound more mystic than I would like. But I really think there is something hidden between the words of the best stories, and I love when I can see that impact working in my own body -both when I read and when I write. When I read, some stories impact my mind, some impact my stomach, my heart, my throat. The best stories take control of all of them. So when I write I try to be very attentive to the impact of each word on myself in order to work out what is going to happen to the reader.
There is often a sense of threat to your work, a feeling that we cannot entirely trust what we are being told. Also that the characters themselves are in trouble — but mysteriously so. As in, they do not always understand what is happening to them nor do we, the readers. We sense that there is a larger plot, if you will, a superplot, or perhaps it is more like a deep plot. Yes — like a deep State operating under the surface of the story. This most overtly reads as a component of the psychological drive of the narratives, but I wonder if there is a politics to this for you?
Ricardo Piglia — a great Argentinian writer that we have just lost this year — said that a story has always two stories inside. The superficial is the one you read, the one that shows what is apparently happening, the simple plot. The second one is the underground story, and you discover part of it when you finish your reading. The big secret is to tell the underground story narrating the superficial one. This idea gave me a lot of freedom in my writing when I realized that for me the most precious thing is that amazing sensation of discovering the underground -even if it is just a suspicion or a particular feeling. I want to put this feeling in the reader’s chest. So I become very flexible with the plot, with the characters, with the genre. Being so attached to the final feeling gave me more freedom during the process.
Does this in any way reflect a politics for you?
Maybe, I don’t know. I relate that way of work more with a philosophy than a politics. Political intentions could be a little bit dangerous for a book. I had political intentions when I started to work in Fever Dream, of course. The book deals with the agro-toxic issue, a big, dangerous new problem for the Argentinian’s health. In fact, this is the first time in the Argentine literature that a book address this topic. And it shows this as a real, cruel and possible way to die.
But in the middle of the writing process, I found myself in a big “politics” dilemma. I could say names, companies, cities, government, I could be really concrete about the negligence underlying this story. But on the other side, it is a very intimate and personal story, and the more testimonial my narrator become, the more away from the reader I felt. At the end, I made myself this question: what would be more effective as an alarm of danger for the reader? Being informative, or achieve a very authentic feeling that something really serious and real is happening, and that this is closer to the reader than he thinks?
People always forget about numbers, names, all kind of information, but they never forget a strong feeling. Maybe to turn on a mute alarm is the most effective way inform, that would be in any case my politics.
This reminds me of the time I heard Vandana Shiva speak about issues affecting Indian farmers due to patenting seeds and other nefarious practices by big agribusiness companies. She said that storytelling had helped her make the case for policy change more effectively than citing data ever could. Which isn’t to say that I think literature should necessarily aim for these specific effects, but it shouldn’t ignore its potential role in politics, either. This is possibly impossible to answer definitively, but what purpose do you think literature serves or ought to?
I think we learn more from stories than from facts. We have been telling ourselves stories since the Stone Age. If you have a good story, you can almost see this strong thread of tension and attention that ties the writers to their words, and then the book to the readers. As a kind of spell capable of moving things inside us that we couldn’t move by ourselves.
And I also think of literature as a kind of trial region where we can test ourselves in other lives, minds, and scenarios. My grandfather was just 18 years old in the Second World War, he used to do the “advance party” for his battalion. So he would get up before sunrise, take a bicycle and ride toward the enemy. His mission was to get as close as possible to the enemy, spy on them, foresee their next moves and come back to his camp with precious information that could help his battalion to survive that day.
For me, literature is the opportunity to get really close to an abyss, to our worst fears, to the dark and the unknown, and the priceless gift of coming back home uninjured. What I get in exchange is so precious to my life, that I can’t understand that this world where we live hasn’t patented this existential treasure yet and bottled it just to sold it to me for a fortune. I can’t believe that I can still go to the library and get this free.
I love the idea of literature as an “advance party” — sending a rider or floating a trial balloon. It affords us an opportunity to get close to the fire without getting burned, or as you say coming back from the dark uninjured. I’ve got two questions! First this makes me wonder if you or we do come back uninjured. Or let me put it this way, have you ever been hurt by a book?
Yes, of course. And I know that it sounds contradictory after saying what I have said. But that is exactly the difference between going to war in the real life or in fiction. You could die in both. You could be hurt in both. But in fiction, you keep the pain without the wounds, so you can build something else from that without being really injured. The last two books that really hurt me were a short novel from William Kotzwinkel, Swimmer in the Secret Sea. And The Armies, from Evelio Rosero, a great Colombian writer.
Secondly, what about joy? What place does joy have in literature? Where does a Utopian urge belong, if it does?
Well, there is joy also. In the sound of the words, in some beautiful lines, in an optimistic paragraph, in the impulse of life that is hidden in any book. But in the end, the best books are always about battles, bigger, smaller, existential, moral, but battles. And in battles, the joy could be really distressing, joy precedes the battle and can crush your heart as much as horror can do.
Your stories and in particular the novel exhibit a tight control over the material. Fever Dream moves through time and speakers and comes into and out of focus as the dream it’s titled for. It’s a tremendous feat of writing that you are conveying a blurred and disoriented state without losing the reader. I read the English translation by Megan McDowell. How ever did you surrender such precise work to another? Can you speak to your experience of working with translators?
I try not to think about that. Being so controlling with the text and with the reader, you could imagine how nervous makes me feel thinking about translation. I have been translated into more than 20 languages and for better or worse, I don’t speak any of them — except English of course. So at least I can rest in the proverb “out of sight out of mind.”
The experience with Megan McDowell was really good. She asked me a lot of questions about the novel, it’s context, some particular words that don’t have exacts equivalence between both languages. It calms you down when you see that there is a real passion on the other side and that was Megan’s case.
And it is curious how translation methods can change from one country to another. Germans, for example, they are so analytic, so exhaustive. I met three times for at least two hours with my translator for the last book. And on the other extreme is the Chinese translator or Hungarian, they didn’t even contact me once. But translation is something marvelous, translation is our universal language. So better if I trust it.
I’ve not thought of translation as a language itself, and I imagine you’re being somewhat poetic, but it’s an interesting idea. Whether we believe there’s the gene for it or it’s learned, inventing and using symbolic representation is, of course, one of our distinguishing features as humans. That said, for the sake of being contrarian, I’ll say I’m a fan of the concept of difference (not Derrida’s différance, but maybe something akin). What I mean is that I enjoy that there are untranslatable moments or phrases. Or at least that there are obstructions to the process. I say all this to ask, just how universal do you think translated language can be?
Well, José Saramago used to say that writers make national literature and translators make universal literature. I remember ten years ago listening to an English editor talking about a short story from my first book named “To Kill a Dog.” He was explaining to other editors that this story was about the Argentinean military coup. He explained why it was about that with such concrete examples that I was completely fascinated because that was never my intention. In fact, I never thought about the military coup when I wrote it. So I said it, though I was afraid to contradict him. But he received the news without being surprised. “It is the same,” he said, “if you would write it fifty years ago in Russia it would have had also other specific meaning, other strong connotation.”
Of course, if we think in terms of words translation can’t be exact. But in terms of sensations, atmospheres, fears, it could be as universal as a human being could be.
And now we have come full circle! The reader brings her context and projections to the work as the writing lives in her. I read “To Kill a Dog” and also watched the short film based on it. I placed the story in both political and ethical circumstances that can be read ahistorically — if that’s possible — and also as very specific to a moment. Mostly, though, as an extreme animal lover, I was gutted by the work on an emotional level. I had a very difficult time with that piece, actually, but I felt it was important to witness. It’s rarer than not that I have that feeling about fiction, that I am acting as witness. And the fact that it was fiction helped me to stick with it. What was your intention with this story?
To be a witness, exactly. To put the reader -and myself- in a position from where you can watch with distance, with perspective. Trying to not judge and not moralize. Allowing judgment and poetry, empathy and rejection, materialized only in the reader’s mind. Never in the text. Trying to disappear as a narrator — always trying to disappear—, and leaving the reader and the story working in communion, alone.
Cara Benson‘s stories and poems have been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, Fence, Hobart, and elsewhere. She’s at work on her second book, an autofiction set in the time of climate change.