Three years ago, Samanta Schweblin’s novella Fever Dream appeared in English and became the hit of the year for those readers who relish something nasty, brutish and short. (Guilty as charged.) It is one of those books of such an intense, disorienting atmosphere that you will always remember where you were when you read it.
Such a launch presents challenges as well as opportunities for the writer. Fever Dream was Schweblin’s first book to be translated into English but her third book overall: she had been perfecting her craft for more than 10 years in her native Spanish language by that time.
Fever Dream was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2017, and then we got her earlier collection of stories Mouthful of Birds. It mined a seam, parallel to that of Fever Dream, of madness, horror and existential dread, and was – like most collections – of mixed quality, but nonetheless good enough to be longlisted for the International Booker last year.
Now Schweblin’s star is so high that her latest novel has come into English straight away. Little Eyes, unlike Fever Dream, is set firmly in the real, modern world. The concept is simple: the latest technological fashions to sweep the world are Kentukis, cute animals – pandas, dragons, crows – that can connect to one another, and sound very much like Furbys, if you remember those.
Being intimately connected with a stranger sounds like a recipe for exploitation
Going even further back, they also resemble Tamagotchis, in that Kentukis live with people as pets, who designate themselves “keepers”. But, and here’s the modern twist, each Kentuki also has a “dweller”, someone who is remotely logged into the Kentuki, and can observe – even share in – the keeper’s life through the toy’s camera eye.
Keepers and dwellers can’t choose one another; when a new Kentuki is initiated, it is automatically connected with another user somewhere in the world, and you’re stuck with it – if you don’t like it, you can sever the connection and your toy becomes useless; you can’t start again. It’s a sort of Russian Chatroulette.
“It was an old concept with technology that also sounded old,” Schweblin concedes (the Kentuki increasingly sounds like an amalgam of tech novelties that might have lodged in the memory of a fortysomething author). “And yet, the hybrid was ingenious.” What it is, in fact, is a suffocatingly intimate form of social media.
And being intimately connected with a stranger sounds like a recipe for exploitation, particularly when the keeper doesn’t know who the dweller is (“a dirty old misogynist, or a pervert,” as one user speculates).
The novel cycles through half a dozen keepers and dwellers, from schoolgirls in the US to a Kentuki entrepreneur in Croatia, and shows us their experiences with Kentukis and their counterparts.
Schweblin dutifully works through the implications: there's an element of Stockholm syndrome for both parties after a time
The concept is strong, and once introduced, we can see the various permutations of interactivity that dwellers and keepers can “enjoy”. Dwellers can hear and see their keeper, but can’t communicate directly with them – unless they use the Kentuki’s limited movements to, say, roll around on a ouija board.
A dweller also doesn’t know what they look like, just as the keeper doesn’t know who’s watching them all day. One man sells connections to Kentukis to the highest bidder. Schweblin dutifully works through the implications: there’s an element of Stockholm syndrome for both parties after a time, and one character observes that “Maybe some keepers did for their Kentukis what they couldn’t do for themselves.” If something happens, does the silent watchful Kentuki bear some responsibility?
Levers of power
It’s an odd symbiotic relationship, but the levers of power can be applied in different directions, and it’s not just dwellers who are in pole position. Kentukis can run around on small wheels, which means that they suffer the same restriction on movement that has applied since Dalek times, and a keeper can exploit this. One keeper puts her Kentuki in a bowl that they can’t escape from and makes it watch what can only be described as human-Kentuki porn.
The most shocking thing about Little Eyes, coming from Schweblin, is that it is not really shocking at all
But there is a fundamental weakness in Little Eyes. The obvious dramatic potential for each story of two people locked together, committed to one another until electronic death, is never fully realised.
The cycling nature of the narratives, cutting from one user to another, means we never get much momentum going, and despite the introduction of a few eye-catchingly horrible elements – a battery chick barn, a swastika shaved into a Kentuki’s head – the stories never really get the blood pounding. In fact the most shocking thing about Little Eyes, coming from Schweblin, is that it is not really shocking at all, but instead rather sensitive and tender. Well, almost.