In This Creepy New Novel, the Toys Are Watching Us

Samanta Schweblin’s writing straddles the unsettling border between the real and the surreal. Her novel “Fever Dream” takes place in a hospital where a dying woman narrates episodes from her past to a strange young boy who is missing part of his soul. Her short story collection “Mouthful of Birds” features a woman who falls in love with a merman, an expectant mother who shrinks her fetus to the size of an almond and spits it out, and a teenage girl who devours live birds.

Her latest novel, “Little Eyes,” may be her most unsettling work yet — and her most realistic. Its dystopian premise is eerily plausible: People around the world have become obsessed with robotic stuffed animals called kentukis, which are operated remotely by strangers who can move and see the toy’s surroundings but can’t communicate except through grunts and squeaks.

The narrative unfolds in more than a dozen towns and cities around the world, with characters that include “dwellers” who inhabit the toys and the “keepers” who own them. A lonely Guatemalan boy operates a stuffed dragon in Norway and dreams of seeing snow. A Peruvian woman who inhabits a bunny in Germany becomes engrossed with the romantic life of her keeper. A Venezuelan girl who has been kidnapped by sex traffickers is rescued by a panda kentuki controlled by someone in Croatia. The relationships between the owners and their toys range from nurturing to manipulative to violent, raising questions about voyeurism, the limits of virtual connection and how technology is both infantilizing and empowering us.

[ “Little Eyes” was one of our most anticipated titles of May. See the full list. ]

“There’s a lot of ambiguity in her writing, and she trusts the reader a lot,” Megan McDowell, who translated “Little Eyes” and Schweblin’s earlier works into English, said in a Skype interview. “She leads you where she wants you to go, and then she leaves you there.”

Schweblin, 42, grew up in a middle-class family on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and has lived in Berlin since 2012. She has long been celebrated as one of the most innovative Spanish-language writers of her generation, ever since she published her award-winning debut collection nearly 20 years ago. Her books have been translated in 35 languages. But her work has only recently caught on with U.S. readers, beginning with the English translation in 2017 of “Fever Dream.” Since then, her global rise has been swift: “Fever Dream” was a finalist for the Booker International Prize and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best novella, and is being adapted into a film for Netflix; both “Mouthful of Birds” and “Little Eyes” were longlisted for the Booker International Prize.

In an email interview, Schweblin discussed the avoidance of technology in literature, the surreal nature of her work and how she thinks quarantine is affecting us. A condensed and edited excerpt from the exchange, which McDowell translated, is below.

Can you tell me about where you are right now and how the pandemic has affected your daily life?

I’m in Lago Puelo, in the far south of Argentine Patagonia, a small and isolated town. I came here almost two months ago now to visit my mom for a few days, but the pandemic and obligatory quarantine trapped me, and I haven’t been able to get back to Berlin.

The first days were tough. Life was telling me: You’re staying here, with your little carry-on suitcase and your two books for the plane, you’re staying here and you have no return date. But now the days pass quickly, and I feel ever more comfortable, strangely comfortable. I rented a ramshackle cabin from a neighbor where I go every day to write. On the way I pass cows, bulls, horses, packs of dogs that keep me company almost the whole way. I concentrate on work, I exercise, I practically don’t talk to anyone all day long. I’m almost ashamed to say it: I’m happy amid the storm.

How did you come up with the concept of kentukis?

From the intersection of some circumstances of my life two or three years ago: a lot of connection with other people through social networks and mobile devices, traveling a lot, practically jumping city to city, language to language and culture to culture. Also a disquiet, or curiosity, that I couldn’t manage to formulate to myself and that had to do, precisely, with the way literature was writing these worlds.

I was reading contemporary literature, and I could feel how writers often avoided naming terms that by then absolutely belonged to our reality: “WhatsApp,” “Instagram,” even something as simple as the idea of a “cellphone.”

I myself, in my own writing, found myself noticing this problem. Why does the incursion of these technological realities into more literary texts bother us so much? Or, for example, absolutely realistic and literary poetry that dares to include this new reality, but are then labeled as “tech-poetry” or “sci-fi” or “futurist”? I wondered, and I still wonder, what happens to us with technology that we incorporate it so easily into our everyday, but then we reject it in the space of fiction?

As a writer, another question arose from all this, the question that I think finally freed the idea of the kentukis: How can we talk about technology without getting tangled up in technical terms? How can we talk about the problems that we, as users, have with technology, without letting technology play a starring role?

Your work often features animals, and “Little Eyes” centers on machines that are part human, part stuffed animals. What effect were you aiming for with that combination?

Animals, toys, robots, all have in common a strange moral force that they exercise over us. There’s something in those eyes, in the way we see ourselves reflected, that destabilizes us. The digital world is full of strangers, real people without faces or bodies. If we could see their facial expressions and gestures, would we behave the same way with them?

Pets watch how we live, they know we’re real, and we like to be looked at and adored. But it also soothes us to know that an animal looks but doesn’t talk, adores but doesn’t offer an opinion.

Something that makes the relationships between kentukis and their owners so uncomfortable is that the kentukis can’t speak. That reminded me of something I read about your childhood — that you stopped speaking for a year when you were 12 because you didn’t want to be misunderstood. I wondered how that experience shaped your approach to language and writing.

How odd, I had never made that connection, but you’re absolutely right. The thing is, language has always made me uncomfortable. I feel language as something heavy, rigid, but above all, inexact. It’s so easy to open our mouths and say something we’d rather not have said, it’s so terrifying to finally name out loud this thing that wasn’t said and to see it transformed into something real.

Clarice Lispector said, “The word is my dominion over the world.” That’s what I feel with the written word: While orality exposes me to all the noises and dangers of language, the written word stops the world and gives me all the time I need to say exactly what I want to say.

At the moment, we’re all isolated but the world also feels more interconnected, because every person in every country is experiencing, to a degree, the same catastrophe. As an artist, how are you processing what’s happening right now? Do you think the world you created in “Little Eyes” will resonate with people who are now even more dependent on technology for connection?

It’s strange, because it wasn’t intentional. In “Little Eyes,” the users connect without bodies, they’re there and at the same time they’re not. They can move freely around another person’s living, nip at their heels, and still not really be there.

In this sense, the quarantine isn’t imposing something new. We’ll come out of it with new rules, which will normalize part of this world in which we are beings who are ever more surveilled, and where the physical presence of bodies almost seems threatening.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve been thinking about a new novel for a few months now, but I’m still in the stage of notes and preparation, and I still don’t fully see its form or tone. In part because of this coronavirus quarantine but also because of personal reasons, my life has taken a radical turn in these past three months. I feel dizzy, as I guess most people in the world are right now, and I foresee that something essential is changing in the way I look at everything. I guess it’s a process that we’re all going through. I feel myself floating when I’m surprised to see I don’t know where I stand, and my ideas about what fiction is and how it affects reality change day by day.

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