Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Oneworld Publications, February 2019, 228 pp

Oneworld Publications, February 2019, 228 pp

First, a confession: I have not read Samanta Schweblin’s Man Booker International shortlisted and Tournament of Books winner Fever Dream. I have not read the book, not even though I had the privilege to hear Schweblin speak at a local literary event last summer. She was wonderful, and rather surprisingly I can still recall bits and pieces of the discussion. For one, she talked about the ways that each reader constructs different mental images of a sentence as simple as, say, “there were shoes on the bed.” So, while I still haven’t read the novel, at least I came to Mouthful of Birds, a collection of her short stories newly translated by Megan McDowell, with an impression of a very skilled author who can conjure vivid images in few words. I wasn’t let down.

Reading the collection was a rather immersive experience, in good and bad. It’s been a few weeks since I finished it and, having today reread a selection of the stories, I’ve concluded that it’s an exceptionally absorbing book at the moment of reading but not necessarily one with a long afterlife. Partly it might be because there’s no room to develop memorable settings or characters since these stories are not interrelated. They are more like images in the sense that they elicit strong reactions but the narrative arc – as much as I vomit when I hear those two words put together – is limited due to the format. It’s also possible that I’m the limited one, as I still struggle with short story collections in general.

Considering that I’m not a huge fan of the format, Mouthful of Birds was a remarkably great reading experience. In fact, it’s one of my favorites of the year so far. This could end up on a personal top 10 list of books come the end of the year. I was rather surprised that there were no misses in this collection like there usually are. I enjoyed every one of them, with minor reservations toward one that I will touch upon below.

These twenty stories are varied in length: “Butterflies” is barely two pages long, but it is the sort of a story that you need to digest slowly and reread to appreciate what is perhaps more of a sensation than a story. “Toward Happy Civilization,” on the other hand, takes nearly twenty pages to develop its evidently Kafkaesque narrative of a man’s excruciating wait for a train that never arrives because he doesn’t have the exact change. Short or long, all of these narratives arrest attention by tweaking the real world with bits of magic. This enables Schweblin to speculate what could be possible in the real world, often with societal implications. There’s a husband who abandons his wife by the edge of a field where she can hear ghostly echoes of all the other women abandoned at the side of the road. There’s a “cure” for pregnancy, a four-month process that plays on the stereotypes of expecting. 

One specific issue I have with the collection is the way that animal violence is handled in “The Test.” I read Schweblin’s collection alongside with Rodrigo Fuentes’ Trout, Belly Up (another short story collection by a Latin American author published in English the same week), and the latter has a similar kind of a scene where I questioned the necessity of violence. Perhaps in Fuentes’ book it drives home a point about the cruel sociopolitical conditions in rural Guatemala, but in Schweblin’s hallucinogenic, wondrous storyworlds I found it an unnecessary addition. She has such a repertoire of nightmarish elements to work with that the story could do, in my opinion, without the violence. But it’s possible that Schweblin addresses a real-life issue here too since she gives a specific location, Buenos Aires.

As said, I really like Mouthful of Birds. I rate it highly but want to note that several people who have read Fever Dream have been less enthusiastic about it. In fact, as I’ve understood, most of these stories predate the novel, so the publication of Mouthful of Birds might have been decided on the grounds that Fever Dream got longlisted for prizes such as the Man Booker International last year. This year, Schweblin is on the list again, so let’s see whether she makes the cut this time.