Poisoned World: Samanta Schweblin on Fever Dream

The Argentinian author's Booker International shortlisted debut drips dead from its pages, a technical masterclass with a dark soul. Samanta Schweblin discusses Fever Dream, imagined anxieties and the real toxins poisoning us and our planet

Article by Alan Bett | 16 Oct 2017

“Last night, you think it worked?” asks Samanta Schweblin, unsure. “Sometimes I feel a little bit embarrassed, doing that.” She’s talking self-deprecatingly of her reading at Edinburgh International Book Festival, where she performed in a voice simultaneously malicious and void of humanity, taking on a character from her Man Booker International shortlisted work Fever Dream. This is David, a mysterious young boy perched on the hospital bed of a poisoned, incapacitated woman – forcing her to recall, searching memories.

Last night: you’re at that same event. Schweblin reads alongside fellow Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez, and you watch while, as each writer takes to the stage, the other creeps to the back of the room to take photographs, smiling proudly like a parent at a school play. It’s a heart-warming image which then blisters with the reminder that this pair are responsible for literature that courses through the body and mind like bad drugs: Schweblin’s Fever Dream, a work of such toxic dread that it seeped from the pages into your everyday. A book that should come with a complimentary 10mls of Valium.

So, although from experience it shouldn’t be (those who create the darkest art are always the nicest it seems), it’s still surprising to find such a warm, easy-going interviewee the next day. When we mention this, contrasting the writer with the work, Schweblin laughs. “People tell me that a lot. And I always say that maybe literature for me is working as a kind of…” Exorcism? “Yes! exactly, that’s the word… you have all this darkness inside and you put it outside. And now it’s the problem of the reader.” 

We spoke briefly the night of the reading, where the now Berlin-based Schweblin apologised for her perfectly proficient yet accented English and doubted the delivery of her story. She repeats both the same unnecessary apology and doubt the next day when we meet. “You think it worked?” And we nod, of course. That crafted voice made the reading, in the same way that the voice makes the novel – defined by italics on the page instead of Schweblin’s sinister whisper when reading live. The voice of a boy that is somehow more and less than a child. 

His voice was absent from earlier drafts of the story, deemed unfit. There were 12 in all, Schweblin admits, smiling. “I have some of them, many of them – different versions of the same children,” the words conjure up images of defective experiments preserved in jars, instead of innocent word files or printed pages. “But when I got David’s voice, everything became very clear.”

This leads us onto the subject of children and horror. Pretentious theories on why they fit so well together are offered, then Schweblin torpedoes these with her more matter of fact hypothesis: “I think children are like crazy people? You know, when you talk with someone who's crazy, what is frightening is that all the agreement that we have with [each] other as a society – ‘don’t do this, this isn’t allowed, don’t touch this’ – they are all erased.

"I think this is something very frightening… they are so young that they still haven’t built this book of rules regarding what you can do and what you can’t... if you don’t have this book then all of what you do is so pure.” The true fear is perhaps drawn from the knowledge that we all once inhabited such a savage state. Or, an ultimately more terrifying suggestion from the film writer Anne Billson is that in cinema ‘children are shorthand for something to be preserved at all costs’.

“There are some points in common between Fever Dream and [my] short stories,” Schweblin suggests, in a later email. “Motherhood – in its fears, and monstrosities; the fear of losing the ones we love the most.” And kids can be lost in so many ways of course; not only poisoned like David; they can simply grow up. What doting parent wouldn’t fear that for their innocent darling? 

The Fever Dream we know is a wonderful translation by Megan McDowell. The original Spanish version title was Distancia de Rescate [Rescue Distance], a term central character Amanda uses to describe how far her child can stray from her yet remain safe – imagine an invisible thread or leash: ‘the rope pulls tight, but I’m distracted’ says Amanda at one treacherous point. ‘The rope is so taut now I feel it in my stomach.’ But, Schweblin asked when questioned during her Book Festival event, what happens when you can’t measure the distance? When no matter how closely we guard, we can't protect those we love? 

“When you know where the danger is and you can touch it, you can defend [against it], you can run, you can do something about that,” Schweblin adds during our conversation, showing Fever Dream to be the perfect product of our age, where we check our phones each morning to see what terrible tragedy has befallen the world as we slept. “When you are not able to understand where the danger is? Come on, in this new era? The anxiety is so strong because you can’t do anything, you are paralysed.” 

The night you first read Fever Dream: you feel drugged. It’s late, you’re tired, and you blame both these truths as you return again and again to the beginning, trying to get a grip of the disorientating, woozy narrative. It feels like something’s kicking in; some sort of malarial sickness, low level anxiety, bad medicine. You feel like you’re dragging yourself through the thick mud of nightmares.

While the novel is structurally complex and experimental (flitting across three voices and time periods, sometimes all on the same page), it’s impossible not to burn through those same pages without pause. Booker International judges Nick Barley and Daniel Hahn acknowledged they did so, then went back to read in more detail, just for the same to happen once more. Hahn admitted to setting an alarm on his third reading, to pull himself out of the book’s dark slipstream – what better compliment could anyone make? And presenting the narrative as memory compounds the horrible inevitability of the outcome – a downward spiral that eviscerates hope. All we are doing is picking through the aftermath. Schweblin likens this to psychoanalysis at one point in our conversation: “You know that no matter how capable you are to discover, things have already happened… the story is like a machine of fear that pulls [Amanda] more and more into this fever dream.”

So, while talking of technique, it is easy to imagine the novel’s poison theme as simply grand metaphor for the aforementioned anxiety seeping into everyday modern life – for in Fever Dream, an unknown toxin seeps into the village, through the water, through the earth. It feels like the town itself is withering on the branch. But Schweblin reveals there’s a more disturbing link to our world off the page. Glyphosate is a herbicide, widely used in agriculture. Google this name (or Glifosato) and you’ll find numerous articles linked to public health in Argentina and elsewhere. This is the first time the Glyphosate issue has been dealt with in literature though, Schweblin says. “This chemical goes to houses and goes to the drinking water. And through drinking water it can travel quickly to the cities. The people who fumigate are in contact with this chemical and we eat this chemical also in food. This chemical is provoking a lot of birth deformations – 100,000s of unexplained miscarriages, chronic respiratory problems, cancer of course.” 

It's astonishing that this is a revelation. Literature has alerted at least this reader to a story that the mainstream media did not. “Even when the book has been very well received among the critics, the Argentinian press doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in the agrotoxics theme," says Schweblin, "but I keep faith in the readers. And actually they are the ones who seem to be more interested in what is going on.

“You know, when I was writing the novel I faced a big dilemma,” she adds. “I asked myself, should I mention names, companies, some government names around what The Hague Tribunal has judged a couple a months ago an 'Ecocide' in Argentina? I was really tempted. But the story rejected this kind of information, they don’t belong to the book. Then I realised in myself, as a reader, a truth: we all tend to forget about names, numbers, and statistics. But we never forget a strong fear. So that was my way to be political: to plant the fear in the reader’s heart, a fear capable of worrying them enough to alert them, to push them to try to understand why this is happening, and find how to be safe.”

So there's value in enduring Fever Dream’s wringer of dread. Fear has benefits – as warning, or to circle back to the beginning of our conversation, as exorcism. “In some way this process is healing you, cleaning you,” says Schweblin, “…when we take a book and [follow] this journey, we are travelling to these dark spaces and testing ourselves.” Like a sandpit? A safe space to experience fear. Schweblin nods. “Literature allows you to go to this dangerous space, and come back to your real life absolutely untouched.” Thinking of her book prompts a raised eyebrow; absolutely? “Well, you keep the pain,” Schweblin admits, “but you don’t have any wounds.”

Fever Dream is out now in paperback, translated by Megan McDowell and published by Oneworld publications, RRP £7.99