Book of the month: Samanta Schweblin

When I was at university, I saw the following question on an exam paper: ‘Literary prizes often go to the right author but rarely the right book. Discuss.’ It was one of my earliest exposures to the doubts that often surface as the book world’s award ceremonies come round each year.

It’s easy to see why some people are cynical about prizes. With so many publications competing for attention (according to the Guardian recent years have seen more than 20 titles released every hour in the UK alone, with a total of 184,000 new and revised works coming out in 2013), it seems inevitable that awards are at least partly luck of the draw.

Indeed, history is littered with the names of literary greats passed over for accolades that subsequent generations of readers would have rushed to heap upon them. Neither Virginia Woolf nor James Joyce received the Nobel Prize for Literature, for example, while several of those lauded over the decades have slipped into obscurity.

Nevertheless, during my quest to read a book from every country, I found book prizes could act as useful signposts when it came to selecting reads from literary traditions and markets that were largely unfamiliar to me. The fact that Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta had won the Best Sinhala Novel State Literary Award, for instance, emboldened me to choose it for Sri Lanka with positive results.

So, although I appreciate that book prizes are an inexact science, I nevertheless look out for the announcement of the major longlists and shortlists each year. And for those of us interested in reading books that originate beyond the English-speaking world, they don’t come much more major than the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded for the first time last year to Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian, a book of the month pick of mine some months before.

April’s book of the month, Argentinian novelist Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell, comes from the shortlist for the 2017 award. I read it some weeks ago after seeing lots of excitement about it on social media and it stayed with me. Earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that it was among the six novels in contention for the award.

Framed as a vision arising from a woman’s delirium as she lies dying, the narrative centres on a holiday gone sour. Terror glints in the sunshine as Amanda haltingly recalls meeting flamboyant Carla and the macabre story she shared about her desperate attempt to save her poisoned son, David, by submitting him to a process of partial  transmigration conducted by a local medicine woman. Yet, as the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that the malevolent forces in question are not confined to Carla’s memory, and that Amanda and her daughter Nina could be at risk from them too.

Concision is central to the narrative’s power. In this slender, 194-page novel, Schweblin and McDowell know the weight of each word and deploy them to achieve maximum pressure.

Mystery abounds as the familiar becomes strange. This is a world where the most mundane of things – a child waking in the night, a lesser-known brand of peas – acquire a horrid weirdness. And as Amanda swerves in and out of the story, urged on by the very David whose eerie unmaking lies at the heart of the book, the ground of the narrative shifts unnervingly beneath our feet.

‘You know. But you don’t understand,’ David tells Amanda. Is he addressing us too?

Loathe though I am to make too much of comparisons between writers from markedly different times and traditions, I couldn’t help but find echoes of the work of one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson, here. Schweblin’s management of unease and foreboding is every bit as deft as the building of giddy queasiness found in such classics as The Haunting of Hill House. (Incidentally, Ruth Franklin’s outstanding biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, is a must-read for all those who have enjoyed Jackson’s work.)

The result is memorable, haunting and brave. Like all books that test the limits of what words can do, Fever Dream takes risks and there are odd occasions where the narrative knots or sags, such that some readers might flail to regain the thread. These are few, however.

Not having read Schweblin’s other works, I can’t say how this compares and whether or not it is the title from her oeuvre most deserving of global recognition. But if the Man Booker International Prize judges see fit to honour Fever Dream this year, I would count it a worthy second winner.

Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate) by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld, 2017)

Image from manbookerprize.com

Argentina: the big fight

In the red corner we have book blogger Ann Morgan, fresh from a year of reading women and apprehensive about taking on a beefy, testosterone-drenched book about boxing.

In the blue corner, weighing in at 256 pages, it’s Martín Kohan’s Seconds Out, a novel built around the controversial 1923 world title fight between American champion Jack Dempsey and Argentine challenger Luis Angel Firpo, and backed by world literature heavyweight Richard Lea (he of the Guardian‘s World literature tour).

A hush falls as the first round begins. The combatants close in. Morgan attempts a jab at the book’s narrow focus only for Out to parry the blow with a series of dialogues about Mahler and Richard Strauss’s careers and friendship, meditations on the role of the media and the passage of time, a suspicious death, considerations of photography, popular culture and the role of the critic, and a remarkably detailed description of a game of dice.

Morgan is clearly shaken, but she stands her ground and eyes her opponent, looking for a chink in the armour. She thinks she sees it and goes in for the kill, blasting the book for its simplicity of style, its spare prose, which surely makes it devoid of subtlety?

Out ducks, feints and counters with a rich, complex structure, drawing in the thoughts of the fighters, the referee, the photographer, the judge, a rookie journalist more than 50 years later, two critics, and an elderly cellist. These it places with vigorous clarity, such that even through all the shifts in time and perspective, we never lose track of who’s in the driving seat.

Out continues its onslaught, powering its points home. If it gets a little carried away with the rhythm of its own rhetoric at times and spins out its combinations longer than strictly necessary, who can blame it? It’s clear Out is no slugger: we are watching a master at work.

The referee steps in. Morgan is down but not out. She retires to her corner to pull herself together for the last round. She comes out fighting, but before she has a chance to land a blow, Out serves up a sucker punch, packing its constituent parts into one muscular denouement that fuses its disparate worlds and blows Morgan clean out of the ring.

It’s a knockout.

Seconds Out by Martín Kohan (translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor). Publisher (Kindle edition): Serpent’s Tail (2010)