In a room of antiseptic white, six women file in to sit symmetrically around a cot. On this lies another woman, face down, motionless, a towel draped over her middle. An assistant with a notepad hands round little white towels folded neatly over shining pincers. The women get to work, tweezing out every hair on the supine woman’s body till it is red and raw. If the woman on the cot twitches, the assistant makes a note. It means a docking of pay.
Horror in Samanta Schweblin is often like this, matter-of-fact but impenetrably strange, unbearable but terrifyingly familiar. In “Olingiris”, one among 20 short stories in the collection called Mouthful of Birds, the assistant will collect the plucked hairs from the towels, pack them in a bag that she will put away under a counter with three other identical bags. Someone will collect it after she has left this unusual “institute” for the day, for “[i]n the city, everything unseemly moved at night.”
So are the events in the room ‘seemly’ then? Each of Schweblin’s tales shimmers with a different kind of horror. In “Olingiris”, a painful enigma is methodically laid out in daylight. What we see are six women satiating with their plucking an obsession that has driven them the whole week, as they put clothes in the machine or fed their children. But we cannot see what happens to the plucked hair at night; we can only imagine it.
It is characteristic of Schweblin’s stories — as of her novel, Fever Dream — that fear and strangeness have no single focus, nor are they of the same kind in the same unit of fiction. What is that unseen thing sleeping in the bedroom while two couples, in “On the Steppe”, share an unnamed experience of acquiring something from the steppes with nets and boots that the reader is led to think is the substitute of a child?
Schweblin’s art alters with its touch everyday things, habits, and relationships, as though all existence is underlaid with an unspeakable fearfulness that the artist senses even if she cannot name it all. In the title story, flattened boxes pile up under a table in the house where the separated parents unite in watching, speechless, their glowing, healthy teenage daughter swallow little live birds with perfect composure at mealtimes. Her helpless mother buys them from the bird seller in boxes with holes. The girl thrives; she can eat nothing else.
The way parents and children, siblings and cousins, husbands and wives relate to one another suddenly seems unrecognizable, yet the reader is gripped, unwillingly, by a sense of horrified familiarity. In stories where Schweblin slides into the surreal, such as “Headlights”, where a bride abandoned on the highway is surrounded by invisible, revengeful presences, the sequences are as layered as the secret logic is inescapable. Terror becomes the normal condition of living; it seems only natural that a tall young man should, at the end of “The Size of Things”, be led away by the hand like a little boy by the mother he is scared of. Has he actually become smaller? Horror in Schweblin is almost poetic, with the same access to a sense of the deeper ‘real’ that poetry offers. So when murder turns into an installation in “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides”, the reader recoils not just from the physical details but also from an unavoidable sense of intimate recognition.
Mouthful of Birds By Samanta Schweblin, Oneworld, Rs 499