In an interview with Heather Cleary for Literary Hub, Scweblin comments that the opening story “Headlights” is “a story that contains all the different genres, all the different atmospheres in the collection.” That story was not the opening story in the original Spanish edition, but it was moved at the suggestion of the English editor and renamed by her translator. Scweblin comments that she had written the story titled “Desperate Women” when she was a young writer, and she admits to its being more prescient than she had realized. In many ways its recognition and its placement is evidence of the positive dialogical nuance of the translation process.
While it would be fun to pull out the threads of this story that make up the tapestry of the collection, to explore the genres and the varied atmospheres, that task could not be completed as we might like. Instead, we might find ourselves confronted time after time with snarled thread, knots that resist our prying fingers. Perhaps, that’s what compels our attention. Just when we think we see the clarity of image, the inscrutability of a life turn defies what we thought we saw.
Images of growth are inevitably countered with dread rather than hope. For example, in “Rage of Pestilence” when Gismondi enters what appears to be an abandoned house, he encounters death in life. The somnolent residents are beyond response, and can only respond with anger toward the intrusion of someone who might redeem them. When a child reaches out for the sugar he offers, the specters who have emerged from everywhere freeze. The “memory of hunger” is awakened but more feared than embraced.
In “Butterflies,” the memory of the insect Calderon has inadvertently mangled functions as an objective correlative to the paralyzing fear that surrounds his delight in his daughter’s vibrancy. Children with their natural innocence and embodiment of the life force remain inscrutable to the adults who parent them.
When the father in “Mouthful of Birds” cannot redeem his daughter, cannot find a way to lure her to eat what he believes to be normal food, he finally succumbs to what he cannot understand and buys her a small bird. He retreats in horror as he hears the shriek through the closed door as his daughter consumes the live bird. The tension between life and death exists in reality and horror.
Stephen King’s 1984 novel, Children of the Corn, burned the stark sense of horror into the minds of American readers with its graphic image of field and children whose innocence was forever lost. Samantha Schweblin’s opening story, “Headlights,” brings that field trope into the discussion of gender conflict. Her story marries King’s instinct for horror with Flannery O’Connor’s theological humor in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” But Schweblin probes a level of psychological complication that surpasses the grasp of either King or O’Connor. She moves relentlessly through the unique horror of the abandoned bride to the siren chorus of sisters singing in the field of renunciation. The darkly comic reversal magnifies the gender breach at the base of the story. The commandeering of the clown car passes on O’Connor’s sense of automotive power and identity. Tom T. Shiftlet can only wait for the light of redemption.
Focus on Translation
Author (Original Language –Country/territory), translator, title (publisher/imprint)
- Jokha Alharthi (Arabic / Omani), Marilyn Booth, Celestial Bodies (Sandstone Press Ltd)
- Can Xue (Chinese / Chinese), Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Love In The New Millennium (Yale University Press)
- Annie Ernaux (French / French), Alison L. Strayer, The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
- Hwang Sok-yong (Korean / Korean), Sora Kim-Russell, At Dusk (Scribe, UK)
- Mazen Maarouf (Arabic / Icelandic and Palestinian), Jonathan Wright, Jokes For The Gunmen (Granta, Portobello Books)
- Hubert Mingarelli (French / French), Sam Taylor, Four Soldiers (Granta, Portobello Books)
- Marion Poschmann (German / German), Jen Calleja, The Pine Islands (Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail)
- Samanta Schweblin (Spanish / Argentine and Italian), Megan McDowell, Mouthful Of Birds (Oneworld)
- Sara Stridsberg (Swedish / Swedish), Deborah Bragan-Turner, The Faculty Of Dreams (Quercus, MacLehose Press)
- Olga Tokarczuk (Polish / Polish), Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
- Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Spanish / Colombian), Anne McLean, The Shape Of The Ruins (Quercus, MacLehose Press)
- Tommy Wieringa (Dutch / Dutch), Sam Garrett, The Death Of Murat Idrissi (Scribe, UK)
- Alia Trabucco Zeran (Spanish / Chilean and Italian), Sophie Hughes, The Remainder (And Other Stories)
Erpenbeck speaks to any person who’s left a job, a home, or a relationship. She drills down on the way the jarring of time disorients and disenfranchises the individual. Her corrective for het retired teacher seems to embrace the extreme, to plunge into a life situation that that by its very nature exaggerates the emotions of dislocation.
Dipping into the first pages of this novel, I think of my paternal grandmother bent over the type cases that lined the wall where a sofa might have been in the living-room-turned-newspaper-office of her home. She had the whole alphabet to select from as she formed the news of the day in the backward composing stick. Tokarczuk is the author picking and choosing among cosmic fragments of narrative, the cold type arranging itself in an infinite number of patterns in the composing mind of the reader.
Somehow David Bloom, that engaging NBC reporter in the early years of this century, fired my interest in news coverage. The night US forces moved toward Bagdad, I was glued to David’s reports from the Bloom Mobile. I was aware of his cramped conditions and the heat of desert travel. Embedded with the Third Infantry Division, he brought war into our living rooms in startling reality. And like his countless fans, I was devastated to learn weeks later of his death, the blood clot from his legs that moved to his lungs.
Somehow that death was the correlative in my mind of the destruction of a rich artistic and cultural heritage of the ancient world as I watched war creep into Baghdad. I remember thinking of my trip to China not long after it was opened to tourists and my sense that political upheaval had ripped a great artistic heritage out of that country. To the extent that culture is maintained by artifacts, it seemed to have lost its past.
So when the Booker International shortlist was announced, I was caught by Saadawi’s title. I couldn’t help wondering how this middle eastern writer had reached back to Mary Shelley and on back to German myth to deal with that thin line between life and death. There was no decision about which of the shortlisted books I would read first.