(Sidharth Vardhan’s review of
a novel by Samanta Schweblin
Novel set in Argentina and first published in 2014
long-listed for 2017 International Booker
for translation by Megan McDowell
Review first written on August 13, 2017
(5 / 5))
A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.
The harmful effects of pesticides – a theme that might not be obvious to an urban reader of the book (the characters themselves seemed to not know about them) is the unnamed curse of the town. However, as with the treatment of psychopath theme in ‘Room’, the much louder theme just serves as a background for the theme of how strong a mother’s love is. You know how homo-sapiens, especially females, keep on sentimentalizing over their parental investment and all that.
Now comes the best part though – and it is the fact that the things occur, or rather are being remembered as if they occur in a dream – Nah, a nightmare. For the most part, it makes most logical sense – Amanda, the protagonist, is dreaming while lying on her death bed (hence the title) – there are some things towards the end that Amanda couldn’t have known but then she might still be dreaming – the whole unreliable narrator thing. It is how brilliantly this dream reality has been created which gets the book 5 stars. Nabokov describes the way we perceive reality as something subjective – and authors are not supposed to imitate the common perception of reality but make you see the others’ perception of reality.
And so it is not Schweblin is asking you to believe in stuff but just to believe that Amanda and Clara is perceiving things that way. Clara believes in superstitious soul thing when her son’s life is in danger, not because she doesn’t know better, but because she chose to believe in a version of the world where her only child will survive – the alternative would have been too unbearable. And anyway she doesn’t know about pesticides and with all the deaths in the city, God’s balance of life or Science’s chain of cause and effect would have stopped making sense to her. The same maternal instinct shows in Amanda with her ‘rescue distance’ thing.
Think of the way we dream. Our brain is processing things slow and through alternative mediums of dreams – sometimes fragments of memory aren’t as readily available as when we are awake. It might take a few moments to remember them or we might not until we are awake – that is how we sometimes talk with our deceased dear ones in dreams without remembering they are dead. Even where we are remembering, a piece of shocking information will shock us as much as when we first come across them – thus making it more like reliving rather than just plain remembrance. Amanda is unable to remember what David did to horses before reaching the point in her reliving when Clara had told her.
Again since our dreams are as fast as our brain is willing to process – David advises Amanda to focus:
“If you focus, things happen faster. Then they’ll also end faster.”Samanata Schweblin
But what is David doing in Amanda’s nightmare? He is there fulfilling her need for a friend as she suffers – reminding her she must not get weak as she fulfills the task she has set herself. And what is the task? It is the whole paternal investment thing again, she can’t die without knowing where her daughter is and if she is safe and healthy; and regretting and feeling guilty if she isn’t.
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Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan