Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes: strange and poignant

Little Eyes, a series of vignettes about “kentukis” (part Furby, part hacked webcam), sits somewhere between a novel and a series of linked short stories.

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Samanta Schweblin, the Argentinian author of four story collections and the novel Fever Dream, is a master of the unsettling. In Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds, the first two of her works to have been translated into English, strange transformations, vanishings and violence take place in spare and unspecified settings. A teenage girl starts eating live songbirds, crunching their bones and letting the blood drip down her chin. Hundreds of grooms abandon their brides by a road in the middle of the night, each man disappearing alone into the darkness. A woman discovers that a malevolent spirit has taken over the body of her young son. The events of these earlier works hover between the surreal and the supernatural, with neither the reader nor their characters ever fully knowing what is happening or why. By contrast, the imaginary technology at the heart of Little Eyes feels all too real, and Schweblin persuasively elaborates its operations and implications.

Part Furby, part hacked webcam, a kentuki is a small artificial animal – a crow, rabbit, a panda – on wheels. Implanted in the kentuki is a camera that sees through the animal’s eyes. You can buy a kentuki, or you can buy a code that connects your tablet or computer to the camera inside one. The connection is randomly generated; when you buy a kentuki you have no idea who will end up looking through the camera at your home, your life, your body. Kentuki owners are “keepers”, while those who look through the camera are “dwellers”. As a dweller, you can control “your” kentuki, moving it around and making various purrs, squeaks and growls. And to a certain extent, the keeper can control the dweller’s kentuki experience by, for example, shutting the kentuki in a cupboard, taking it on a trip, or lifting it up to look out a window. Either party can end the connection at any time, and such an ending is permanent.

Little Eyes is somewhere between a novel and a series of linked short stories. Each chapter is set in, and takes its title from, a location (Oaxaca, Zagreb, Antigua, Vancouver, and so on) inhabited either by a kentuki keeper or a dweller. The narrative moves back and forth between these locations, returning to each one only as long as the connection there between keeper and dweller is maintained. This means that some places we only see once (Vancouver, where a keeper quickly “kills” a kentuki controlled by a cruel dweller) whereas others we visit several times, watching the relationship between keeper, dweller and kentuki develop over weeks or months. It’s a clever structure, allowing Schweblin to investigate all the things that a kentuki might be – is it a pet? a spy? a co-parent, a money-spinner, an alter ego? – as well the various thrills and dangers that such a technology might offer.

With one exception: Schweblin is notably uninterested in corporate surveillance. We learn nothing about the company that makes kentukis, and none of the characters wonder or care how customers’ information is being gathered, stored or sold. Instead, Little Eyes uses technology to consider individuals’ connections to one another, to their own bodies and to their possessions.

Schweblin’s language is plain, verging on the colloquial, allowing the narrator to stay close to the perspectives of the keepers and dwellers. Generally, the chapters focusing on the latter are more successful, conveying the weirdness and poignancy of existing in two bodies at once. A lonely child connected to a dragon kentuki starts to experience his life outside the kentuki as unreal: he is “no longer a boy with a dragon, he was a dragon with a boy inside him”. An elderly widow, given a kentuki connection by her son, derives pleasure from seeing the rabbit she inhabits fondled by its keeper.

Almost all the keepers and dwellers that maintain the kentuki connection longer than a day or two are unhappy in some way. The book’s structure, which demands that every connection end, means that the solace these characters find in their kentukis cannot be permanent, but Schweblin leaves us to decide for ourselves whether or not impermanence renders such solace worthless. And while kentukis offer humans new ways of abandoning and being abandoned, mistreating and being mistreated, Little Eyes doesn’t suggest that these ways are ­necessarily worse than the old ones.

Schweblin’s skipping around between characters and places means that her portrayal of technology’s capabilities is broad rather than deep. While this lack of depth may not be to every reader’s taste, the ­novel’s breadth provides much of its pleasure, allowing an inventiveness that balances the bleakness of its characters’ lives. 

Little Eyes
Samanta Schweblin, trs Megan McDowell
Oneworld, 256pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 04 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn't working

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