Friday, March 31, 2017

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

Hardcover, 192 pages Pub January 10th 2017 by Riverhead Books (first published 2014) Orig Title Distancia de rescate ISBN13: 9780399184598 Literary Awards Premio Tigre Juan (2015), Man Booker International Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017)

Dream is the right word for what we think we observe in this novel. Something poisonous is going on involving two mothers, their children, and pollutants that have entered the soil and water in a countryside that should nourish farmers, ranchers, and vacationers. The cycle of life has been profoundly disrupted and neither residents nor visitors can or will speak of the horror in the vacation wonderland. It looks as though some kind of paranormal witchery is being considered a kind of cure.

Americans lived through a history of environmental pollution and subsequent corporate denial for years in the 1950s-1960s until regulations put a halt to the most egregious flaunting of public health. The public became savvy, protesting when agriculture, methane, coal, oil, gas or other byproducts left a mark on their communities. But we rarely saw what happened in other parts of the world where the legal infrastructure was not as developed and the public not as well-educated in the ways profits become manifest.

Schweblin has made an extraordinarily intimate small novel speak for a national catastrophe. She has captured the somewhat insular way a mother observes and protects her child—how intimately she is familiar with every gesture and each learned behavior, connected by some psychic string, or in Schweblin’s words, ‘the rescue distance.’

The story is told in a unique way. The action is all past; a woman, Amanda, is in the hospital. She has a young boy speaking to her in imagination if not in actuality. The young boy encourages her to remember…to remember the sequence of events that led to this moment. Amanda and her child are staying in a vacation home in the country; while waiting for her husband to come on the weekends, they invite an interesting-looking local woman, Clara, and her son over to talk, play, and drink maté.

The strangeness comes from the juxtaposition of the hospital setting with green fields waving in a warm breeze, a cool creek, the hot sun sparkling on an outdoor pool, the languid slap of a screen door, a gold bikini, a young daughter chortling and repeating to herself, “we adore this.” There is unspoken menace in everything recalled by the woman now lying in the hospital, and the young boy she speaks to makes it sound almost as though she still had a choice…a choice she could make to prevent her imminent death.

A review from the Los Angeles Times talks about the introduction of genetically modified soybeans into the farming culture of Argentina. In an interview with Bethanne Patrick in LitHub, Schweblin is more explicit:
"This story could be set anywhere. In fact, the first time I heard about pesticides and their terrible consequences was through a documentary about this subject in France. But, mainly because of corruption, Latin America has the worst agrochemical regulations and agreements. And Argentina, in particular, is one of the biggest importers of soya—one of the products more related with pesticides. We spread this soya all over the world; it is the base of a lot of our food. Soya is in everything: cookies, frozen fish, cereal bars, soups, bread, all kinds of flour, even ice cream!"
The pollution already permeates the soil and water, is what Schweblin is telling us. It’s not like stopping now is going to change anything, but the tension in this novel may indicate there may be a way to forestall an inevitable end.

Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Schweblin apparently now lives and writes from Berlin. Fever Dream is her first novel, originally published in 2015 and winner the Tigre Juan Prize which serves to draw attention to a worthy lesser-known author. She has three story collections besides this book.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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