The camera tucked in the eye of the cuddly toy

by Sarah Murrenhoff

The better America (Issue IV/2020)

Die Kamera in den Augen des Kuscheltiers -

Photo: Kevin Mallett/ Gallerystock

Who is afraid of a Furby - those owl-like battery operated fluffy toys of the 1990s? A Furby is furry and, entirely depending on your perspective, it is either ugly or sweet. It makes incomprehensible noises and waddles clumsily back and forth. So far, so harmless. But what happens when its glass eyes contain a camera which can be used to spy on you by someone behind  a screen elsewhere in the world? When this unknown person in the guise of a fluffy animal 4.0 can steer their way through your home? That is the not so unrealistic premise of the novel “Little Eyes” by the Argentinean author Samanta Schweblin.

“Kentukis” are cuddly toys on plastic wheels and they are really trendy. Suddenly they infiltrate every corner of the planet, taking the form of rabbits, pandas, crows or even dragons. They cost 279 dollars and the whole world is talking about them. Everyone wants a Kentuki. But the big question is: to have one or to be one? You can be either the “keeper” or the “dweller” of a Kentuki in Schweblin's novel. It weaves together dozens of miniature portraits from Kentuki “keepers” and “dwellers”. Like in a film, we are offered a panopticon of individual stories, each one more oppressive than the next. One is drawn ever deeper into a world which one suspects would be entirely possible right here and now.

Schweblin tends to depict everyday life, but gives it a certain uneasiness, a latent threat which always hangs in the air

There is Alina who, out of feelings of boredom and inadequacy, mutilates her Kentuki crow, setting fire to its wings or hanging it on the fan. There is Enzo, a divorced family man from Umbertide in Italy, who gets a Kentuki mole to help his son deal with his parents separation. The close friendship between the father and the mole seems to be so solid that the reader is almost won over by it. That's until one realises that the mole has developed a dangerous obsession for Enzo's son. Then there is Emilia, a pensioner in Lima who feels abandoned by her son and resides in a rabbit in a young woman's flat in Erfurt.

Emilia's maternal feelings go so far that soon photos of the unknown woman decorate her kitchen. Whether it’s in “Little Eyes” or in her short stories, Schweblin, who was born in 1978 and has twice been nominated for the Man Booker Prize, tends to depict everyday life, but gives it a certain uneasiness, a latent threat which always hangs in the air. Schweblin is a master of writing about situations of change - her stories continually shift from one viewpoint to another and back again. You see the sweet mole at one moment, and then the next you are imagining the perverted old man who could be behind it. Schweblin's stories are like puzzles, with layers of different overlapping realities. Thus, you see the world as never before.

In “Little Eyes”, Schweblin explores the whole range of human behaviour. She chronicles the search for closeness, feelings of humiliation and insurmountable loneliness. But even the most tender moments are overshadowed by a sense of pending destruction. Nothing, absolutely nothing about her prose is conciliatory. With poetic precision Schweblin leads even the most warm-hearted story towards the abyss. By the end of the book, any sense of certainty is left in tatters. But you gain one underlying message: It is not simply technology brings destruction into our homes. Destruction was there long before - because there is much of it within us already. And that is a form of story telling that is so overwhelming that it pulls the rug away from under you.

Little Eyes. By Samanta Schweblin. Oneworld Publications, London, 2020.

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