Samanta Schweblin
The enduring international fame of Argentine literature was reached long ago, and as its German readership we thank Argentina’s guest of honour appearance at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair for acquainting us with a wealth of new discoveries. Numbered among these literary highlights is Samanta Schweblin, whose first publications – two slim volumes of prose, “El núcleo del disturbio” (The Core of the Disturbance, 2002) and “Pájaros en la boca” (Birds in the Mouth, 2009) – immediately led to her international breakthrough. Meanwhile, her prize-winning stories have not only been translated into German, English, French, and Swedish, but also into Hungarian, Italian, and Dutch. In addition, she appears in the 2010 anthology “The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” published by the renowned Granta Magazine.

Born in 1978, Samanta Schweblin grew up in Buenos Aires, where she studied film. Among other acquired skills, she learned to write screenplays and sitcoms. Before devoting herself entirely to her writing, she founded an agency specialized in web design. She began working creatively at an early age: as a child she dictated her first stories to her mother, and illustrated them herself. From her grandfather, a visual artist, she learned early on in life that one should to be in the position to manage without money. Indeed she attached so much importance to her artistic autonomy that she sought other means to support herself – which led to founding the agency. In December of 2001 the first literary prize she received as a very young woman was namely a “Fondo Nacional de las Artes” (National Endowment for the Arts), the country’s most prestigious art prize, but awarded then of all times, when the Argentine financial crisis had reached a devastating height. While this highly remunerated prize retained only its symbolic value, the financial breakdowns were followed by political ones. Despite the confusion and general uncertainty dominating Argentina at that time, Samanta Schweblin, who had only published a few articles in various newspapers until then, was taken under contract by the renowned Planeta publishers. As she stated in an interview with the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, this bordered on a miracle: “There I was, twenty-two, an unknown writer, and a woman in Argentina, where the literary scene is largely dominated by men. Everything was against me. Those were really terrible days. There were violent protests in Buenos Aires, and twenty-five people died.”

Great violence and uncertainty have shaped Argentina’s history not only since the military dictatorship which lasted from 1976 to 1983, and even today this is reflected in various ways in its literature. But unlike many other young Argentine writers, Samanta Schweblin does not work solely with the country’s historical trauma. This strengthens a sense of latent danger in all of her stories published so far. The threat, which shows itself in countless ways without being explicitly named, develops to a palpable presence. First and foremost, this provides the undertow and tension which Schweblin attaches so much importance to. For this reason too, considering her conspicuously concise and emphatic writing style, the short story is her most preferred genre. In conversation with the magazine Páginal/12, quoted by Eberhard Falcke in his book review of the German first edition of “Birds in the Mouth” (published by Suhrkamp as “Die Wahrheit über die Zukunft”), which appeared in the German newspaper Die Zeit, Samanta Schweblin stated: “Short stories offer more possibilities for pulling the rug out from under one’s feet, and that’s what interests me about literature.”

In just 130 pages, “Birds in the Mouth” presents a great deal of upsetting and abysmal material without the slightest trace of sensationalism. Its fourteen stories revolve around universal and timeless subjects like family, divorce, loneliness, aggression, poverty, and illness, without the writer renouncing her contemporary gaze. The volume begins and ends with a story connected to wishing for a child. The first story, “In the Steppe”, leads literally into the pampas, the mythical, identity-stimulating setting of the early Argentine literary tradition and links the seemingly archaic, nocturnal hunt for an unnamed creature with the longing for a baby of one’s own – a longing that can be stilled in ultramodern laboratories, and the last story, “Conserves”, which plays against precisely this backdrop, reverses the simple process as economically as expressively illustrated, and goes on to show in which direction reproductive medicine might develop next. This would not be the first time – in the broadest sense – that fantastic literature anticipates prospective developments. But Samanta Schweblin hardly wants to be pigeonholed in this area, as she confessed to the interviewer from the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel: “Reality is made up of odds and ends, which can cause a situation to tip over into sheer eeriness. The closer the fantastic is to the normal, the eerier it becomes. That’s why all my stories begin with perfectly normal situations. (…) Argentine literature criticism associates me with the tradition of Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Of course, I’m honoured. I admire their work. But I don’t think my stories qualify as fantastic literature. Since they could all happen exactly as told!”

Therefore the more long-lasting the shiver that these masterly precise and laconic stories cause in mesmerized readers. Writer and translator Angelica Ammar has paid close attention to maintaining their atmospheric density and poetic allure in her transcription of the original texts into German.

Text: Patricia Klobusiczky