From fevered dreams come tales of terror

Samanta Schweblin's writing is influenced by her outings as a child with her grandfather.
Samanta Schweblin's writing is influenced by her outings as a child with her grandfather.PHOTO: ALEJANDRA LOPEZ

Author Samanta Schweblin's works are disturbing and often begin with a single, indelible image

Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin once dreamt that she woke up in the middle of the night and went downstairs to the kitchen.

"There was a little girl sitting at the table, eating peas. When I called her by her name, she told me, 'I'm not your daughter. Don't call me your daughter.'"

Schweblin, 41, does not have any children.

She puzzled over the dream for almost a year before she began to write Fever Dream (2014), which was translated from Spanish to English by Megan McDowell and shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017.

In it, a woman called Amanda lies dying in a hospital bed. A boy called David sits next to her. He is not her son. She can neither move nor see. "It's the worms," David tells her. "We have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being."

Speaking carefully in English - her third language after Spanish and German - over Skype from Berlin, where she and her restaurateur partner have lived for seven years, Schweblin tells another story.

Ten years ago, she was travelling in rural Argentina. She and her friends arrived in a town that had been booming 50 years ago, but upon the closing of its train station, became a ghost town.

Nobody asks a writer who writes a crime novel if he has killed anybody.

ARGENTINIAN WRITER SAMANTA SCHWEBLIN , in response to people asking how she can write so much about motherhood when she is not a mother

In its only restaurant, she ordered pasta. The next thing she knew, she had food poisoning so severe that she threw up for four days.

"When you are poisoned, the blood in the stomach needs to do a lot of work, so you lose blood from the extremities of the body, from the tips of your toes. It feels like worms."

Fever Dream is being adapted into a film for Netflix by Schweblin and Peruvian director Claudia Llosa, who made Academy Award-nominated film The Milk Of Sorrow (2009). The film, shot in Chile, will be out early next year.

The novel is fraught with terror, from ecological dread to the anxiety of motherhood. It irks Schweblin when people ask how she can write so much about motherhood when she is not a mother. "Nobody asks a writer who writes a crime novel if he has killed anybody."

This was her first book translated into English. It was followed earlier this year by Mouthful Of Birds, which brings together short stories spanning a decade from when she began writing at 18.

She has published three story collections and, in 2010, was named by literary magazine Granta as one of the 22 best novelists aged 35 and younger writing in Spanish.

Mouthful Of Birds, also translated by McDowell, was longlisted too for the Man Booker International this year, but did not make the cut.

Still, Schweblin appreciates its inclusion because short-story collections are rarely recognised by such awards.

"In Argentina, we have a strong tradition of short-story collections. It was a beautiful gesture from the jury to allow the collection to be in there. I hope it opens doors."

Schweblin's short stories, like her novel, are disturbing and often proceed from a single, unforgettable image.

Headlights, which opens Mouthful Of Birds, began when she was channel-surfing on television and glimpsed a woman in a wedding gown alone on the road at night, trying to repair her car. She trawled the channels again to find the show, but could not.

Mouthful Of Birds, the title story, was inspired by an advertisement of a girl covering her mouth with her hand. "She had a strange smile," says Schweblin, "not that you could see it, but you knew from some intuition that she was terrified about what she had just put in her mouth, but something about it also made her really happy."

Born in Buenos Aires to a computer programmer father and a kindergarten teacher mother, young Schweblin kept a diary with her grandfather, an engraving artist, who would take her on outings to theatres, museums and horse races.

"We went on strange journeys. One time, we went to a pub and the barman was looking at us and probably thinking, 'What is this girl doing here with an old man at midnight? Do I need to call someone?'"

Years later, her strange journeys would become literary ones in the genre known as "fantastico rioplatenso", a strain of magical realism from the Rio de la Plata region in South America.

"We write the fantastic from the mundane," she says.

"We walk on the ledge between the world we know and the other world that is just a bit stranger. We could catch it by stretching out our hand."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2019, with the headline 'From fevered dreams come tales of terror'. Print Edition | Subscribe