Haunting collection feeds on fertile imagination

MOUTHFUL OF BIRDS By Samanta Schweblin
MOUTHFUL OF BIRDS By Samanta Schweblin



By Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

Oneworld Publications/Paperback/ 229 pages/$27.82/Books Kinokuniya/

4 stars

Butterflies, a wife-killer and ravenous townspeople are some of the inhabitants of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin's strange, nightmarish collection of short stories.

Mouthful Of Birds, which was published in Spanish nine years ago, has been deftly translated by Megan McDowell, the same person behind the English edition of Schweblin's deeply unsettling and internationally acclaimed short novel, Fever Dream (2017).

From the crunch of a bird bone to the sardonic recountings of a fractured relationship, Mouthful Of Birds is a resounding success.

The stories in the Man Booker International longlisted collection are dark, vivid and beautiful - like Brothers Grimm fairy tales shorn of their morals.

Many are shaped by an artful violence or shadowed by some disturbance or perversity.

Schweblin's writing has a sparseness, a restraint to it that belies its psychological complexity. She is astutely aware of the close ties between memory and desire. And her pacing is impeccable.

In Rage Of Pestilence, a man employed by the government visits a dusty valley town that is eerily still in the midday heat.

"The place seemed uninhabited, but he could sense the townspeople behind the windows and doors. They didn't move; they weren't watching him; they were just there..."

The turn of the screw happens over a sequence of well-timed motions. First, there is stillness, then the "breeze of a movement" as the people feel the stirrings of hunger. A little boy brings his finger to his mouth, the townspeople freeze - then, seconds later, they strike.

Other stories are not so much terrifying as downright strange. In Olingiris, women have their leg hairs pulled out and are paid for it, but their salary is docked if they show they are in too much pain.

If you will not read Schweblin for her tales of psychological horror, read her for her dark humour, which she executes to perfection.

Toward Happy Civilisation, in which a traveller finds himself trapped in a provincial train station for days on end because he does not have change for a ticket, treads an uneasy line between farce and Kafkaesque nightmare.

Then, there is Santa Claus Sleeps At Our House, a PG13 festive drama in which violence and coarse language are a source of much-welcome dark comedy.

Even though Mouthful Of Birds never thickens into the toxic, hallucinatory fog of Fever Dream, it worms its way into the psyche and lives off the reader's fertile imagination - haunting him long after the book has been put down.

If you liked this, read: Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (Profile Books, $19.15, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of stories which combines science fiction, horror and folklore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2019, with the headline 'Haunting collection feeds on fertile imagination'. Print Edition | Subscribe