‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin
Trans. Megan McDowell; Oneworld; $19.99
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Rural Argentina. Near future. A woman, Amanda, is dying in an emergency ward. She has a high fever but is compelled to talk, to tell a story to a boy called David. Kneeling by her bed he whispers questions; she replies. Their flat, detailed dialogue concerns a small village, strange children, dead children, mysterious farms in an uneven but sometimes lush landscape where fields of soy “lean in”. Amanda might be hallucinating and David might be a little boy, but he sounds adult as he urges Amanda to get to the point before she dies.
John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake all reverberate in Fever Dream. Samanta Schweblin knows her habitat and moves serenely within it. In the Spanish-speaking world she is known for her short stories, and this is her first novel and first translated book. If the translation is true, there is not one wasted word. The methodical precision of the writing, one word slotting into another, shapes a wall of mounting dread.
Amanda and her small daughter, Nina, have come to the country on vacation, and Amanda recalls noticing on the first day the strange children, particularly David, the son of Carla, a woman she has just met and finds fascinating. Carla tells her of the sudden death of the family’s prized horse and the subsequent illness of David, and how a local shaman type saved his life by replacing half of his soul. But the real David never returned. Carla now calls him a monster and he never calls her “mom”.
If the environment is one great anxiety in Fever Dream, parenthood is the other. Nina, doing laps around the house and making sweet jokes, is an enchanting and enchanted child. Amanda loves her more than anything in life; she lives every moment bound by an awareness of a rescue distance, the steps she can take to rescue her beloved daughter if necessary. She’s not neurotic. This is everyday motherhood, a fusion of love and terror, when mothers believe that as long as they live they can protect their children.
Schweblin cuts through any fantasy that rescue distance can make a difference in a lazy, venal, ignorant, careless world. Nurses in hospitals turn their heads and offer salves, fathers don’t notice what they should, and even the countryside, the original paradise of waving green fields and bubbling streams, will kill you when you feel most safe. This village is silent, the fields are emptied of livestock, no birds sing. What lives is withered. This is the bleakest of novels because Schweblin dismisses facile hope. It is a contemporary slant on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Read it.