My Personal Six for the Booker International Prize 2020 Short List

This is not the “official” shortlist from the Shadow Jury with whom I am privileged to read. We plan to reveal what we, as a group, think should be on the short list for the Booker International Prize 2020 on April 10. But, as the official list from the Booker Prize will be released tomorrow, I wanted to submit my six favorites from the thirteen books on the long list.

My very favorite was The Other Name, a quietly contemplative book with which I felt a great compassion and identity. Next, comes The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree for its incredible power to make magical realism effective in relaying the horrors of the revolution in Iran. Then, comes The Memory Police because it has made me think about the power of memory and loss. After that is Little Eyes for its ability to explore the encroachment of technology in our lives (although, I must say that technology has certainly been a boon during this time of isolation!). The Eighth Life is included because it portrays a family’s story with great poignancy. Finally, Hurricane Season must be considered because it is written with such raw ugliness that I cannot forget it, and it has shown me what a safe life I have been privileged to live.

I am eager to see what the list from the Booker Prize will include, as it is revealed tomorrow, April 2, 2020.

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Booker International Prize 2020) An incredibly unusual, and important, book.

When my son was in second grade, Tamagotchis were all the rage. I bought him one, as he longed to fit in with the other kids, and he spent hours “feeding” it, amongst the other things required to “keep it alive”.

“But,” my parents said, “it’s not real!” They could not understand the significance of a virtual pet, and I must say that I agreed with them. How do you keep a machine alive? How can a machine be a pet?

Twenty years later we come to Samanta Schweblin’s magnificent novel, Little Eyes. I was riveted from the first page, and I stayed that way throughout my reading. For it is about technology, and socializing, and the way that people can put feelings on a plastic animal covered with felt or feathers.

They are called kentukis, these creatures costing $279.00 which come in a box and must be activated with a special code. People who buy them become ‘keepers’, while those who are connected to them via technology are called ‘dwellers’. The two people never meet, yet their lives are intimately woven together as the kentuki has ‘eyes’ which serve as cameras, and wheels allowing them mobility; the apartments which they occupy, and the privacy therein, is shown in all its reality to strangers with whom they are connected.

However, the strangers gradually cease to feel that they are anonymous. Suddenly, they find themselves caring deeply about the lives of the people who own the kentuki; worse,they care deeply about the kentuki itself, as if it was real. Or, capable of human emotion.

…it seemed like the idea of kentuki liberation had just been invented. It occurred to someone that mistreating a kentuki was as cruel as keeping a dog tied up all day in the sun, even crueler if you considered that it was a human being on the other end. Some users had tried to found their own clubs and free kentukis that they considered were being abused.

I have never read a book like this. The imagination of Samanta Schweblin is extraordinary, and the world she brings to life is frightening. For I do not believe we are far from the power that machines can exert on our lives.

About the Author: Samanta Schweblin was chosen as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under the age of 35 by Granta. She is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into 20 languages. Fever Dream is her first novel and is longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin.

A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I’ll make this short, as I don’t like to disparage authors or their hard work. Also, I sent my opinion out in Twitter and Instagram, so you may already know this.

I didn’t like A Mouthful of Birds.

This collection of short stories had an auspicious beginning. The first story, “Headlights”, tells of a bride abandoned by her husband while she’s still in her wedding dress standing by the side of a road. One has the idea that the field nearby is filled with abandoned brides who are screaming; near the end, a trail of headlights are seen coming back.

Another story, “Preserves”, has a pregnant woman not emotionally prepared to have her baby yet. After seeing a doctor, who has developed a solution, she spits an almond shaped object into a jar of fluid.

The story taking the title of the collection, “A Mouthful of Birds,” has a set of parents who do not know what to do with their daughter who thrives on eating birds. Alive and whole.

“The Test” is a horrible story about a man who must kill a dog to prove that he can follow orders and eventually kill a person. He bashes a dog over the head with a shovel, but doesn’t quite kill it. Instead, the dog is in agony, and the man learns he didn’t qualify because he hesitated when given the order to strike.

Each story is more upsetting then the previous one. I suppose you could say the writing is imaginative; it certainly is bizarre. But ultimately, the dark violence became overwhelming, and I came away from this book quite distraught. If literature reflects life, I am concerned about how Samanta Schweblin sees the world.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell): Man Booker International Prize Long List

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The important thing already happened. What follows are only consequences.

The pace of this book is frenetic, building up panic as those who have suffered a terrifying dream are well aware; we want to wake up, we want things to be better, we want to find out that none of what we dreamed was real.

Amanda lies dying on rough, coarse sheets. A boy murmurs to her, and their dialogue is all we have to tell us their story. To lead us to “the important thing.” At the boy’s prompting to remember, she relives the horrors that have brought them to this place.

In a disjointed, and bizarre narrative, we find that she and her daughter, Nina, have come from town to vacation in the peace of the countryside. She has befriended the boy’s mother, Carla, a beautiful woman with an elegant walk whose red hair is worn in a bun.

The boy’s mother has witnessed a stallion die after it has drunk from a stream. Next to the stream was a dead bird, and when the boy’s mother becomes aware that her son has drunk from the same stream, she carries him almost immediately to the green house. There, a woman to whom people go rather than the clinic, takes David into a back room.

Later, Nina sits down in the grass, becoming wet in what her mother assumes is dew. She and her mother are given pills at the local clinic and told to go home, rest. They have had too much sun.

Can it be mere stupidity that denies the effects of poison which has infiltrated the ground, the water? Or, perhaps is it easier to deny the truth than deal with its consequences. But, a mother’s desire to save her child, the “rescue distance” as Schweblin so aptly calls it, can only stretch so far in its effectiveness. And as the lines between the two children blur, so do the ramifications for the rest of the community.

This is a frightening book, an alarming story which seems part sci-fi and part horror. It has just the kind of emotional tension which the books on the Man Booker International Prize long list so cleverly create.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Published March 2, 2017 by Oneworld
160 pages

Find more reviews from Tony’s Reading List, 1st Reading’s Blog, and A Little Blog of Books.