When I remember my dreams at all, they’re not stories but feelings. I once dreamed I was breastfeeding a flamingo, and I could feel the beak, even in the morning telling, before I saw the bird bite me. But even when a dream feels real there is often something in it to let you know you’re imagining things – a pink feathered bird in the hospital blanket rather than a plump pink baby – and perhaps this is also a source of comfort, the unholy contrast which insists none of this could possibly happen. Say, though, you can’t detect the unknotting detail: what’s a dream then? No longer an amusement for a lover, some solace for a friend or an offering for an analyst, the dream might be hellishly, inescapably real.
Samanta Schweblin’s first novel, Fever Dream, is a dream in which the unknotting detail isn’t yet clear. As the novel opens, Amanda is dying, and there is a voice in her ear saying strange things. The voice belongs to a young boy, David, but he isn’t her son. At this point the novel doesn’t even look much like a novel – there are no quotation marks for speech, and David’s words are distinguished from Amanda’s by italics – and, just like in a dream, we don’t immediately know where we are or who is speaking:
They’re like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
No, another kind of worms.
Amanda asks questions, but David has only riddles for answers. What are the worms? And will finding them prove we’re in a dream or not in a dream? He presses Amanda to recall the holiday she spent a few months earlier in the ‘perfumed green’ soy fields of northern Argentina. Amanda met David there, as a result of befriending Carla, his mother. Amanda has to remember the holiday in detail to find out ‘the exact moment when the worms come into being … because it’s important, it’s very important for us all.’ This is the nonsensical but irresistible logic of a dream; when Amanda starts lingering over her memories – Carla wore a gold bikini; there was an immediate ‘mutual fascination’ between the women; Amanda’s own daughter, Nina, carried around a stuffed mole – or worrying about how close to death she is, David says: ‘None of this is important. We’re wasting time.’ Or does he even say it? This figure with an overwhelming sense of what’s important could be a real boy, but he could also be a figment of Amanda’s guilty imagination. He could be the superego of the dream, or a detective figure within it; his interest in some details and lack of interest in others contribute to the novel’s strange sense of dread. It’s David, who isn’t even her own son, who seems to know what’s going on, while Amanda, who is the mother of someone else, can only tell him what she’s seen.
Amanda remembers sitting in the front seat of the parked hire car with Carla at the beginning of the holiday. Two mothers on a hot, empty day sharing a story about their children: few things could be more banal. Carla is at first unwilling to talk about her past: ‘If I tell you, you won’t want me to visit anymore,’ she says. ‘If I tell you, you won’t want David to play with Nina.’ She speaks despite herself. Several years ago, her husband, Omar, who bred horses, had borrowed an expensive stallion. One afternoon, when Carla was supposed to be watching over both the stallion and David, who had just begun to walk, she lost sight of the horse, and went out to find him with her son in her arms. The toddler spotted the animal – ‘There, Mum!’ – drinking water from the stream. Carla put him down and edged towards the horse to catch hold of his bridle. ‘It was such a relief,’ Carla says. ‘I remember it perfectly, I sighed and said out loud: “If I lost you, I’d lose the house too, you jerk.”’ But on turning to go home, she discovered David knee-deep in the stream, sucking water off his fingers, a dead bird ‘just a step away’ from him: she yelled and snatched him up with one arm, panicked. The next morning, Omar found the stallion lying down in the pasture, eyes swollen, heart speeding. ‘Whatever the horse had drunk,’ Carla tells Amanda, ‘my David had drunk too, and if the horse was dying then David didn’t have a chance.’
The Spanish title of Schweblin’s novella is Distancia de rescate, which translates as ‘rescue distance’. It’s a concept Amanda inherited from her own mother:
I’m wondering whether what happened to Carla could happen to me. I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leaped into the pool. I call it the ‘rescue distance’: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.
Amanda imagines it sometimes as a rope that ties adult to child, slackening and tautening according to maternal instinct. The ideal distance is just inches, no distance at all. Did Carla fail as a mother by letting go of David while she was trying to catch the stallion? Why didn’t she feel that there could be some sort of danger there, by the stream? It ought to have been idyllic: David playing in the water, Omar’s borrowed horse found, household ruin averted. The assumption behind the rescue distance is that the attention born of love, specifically a mother’s love, can save. But how can you save someone if you don’t perceive the danger?
David was a toddler when he swallowed the water, and didn’t know he shouldn’t have. Carla couldn’t save him, so took him to someone who could. The woman in the green house dealt in ‘negative energy’ for the people of the town, curing ‘headaches, nausea, skin ulcers and cases of vomiting blood. If you reach her in time, she can stop miscarriages.’ She gave Carla tea, watched David playing, and then explained that the poison he had drunk would attack his heart, but she could rescue him if she performed a ‘migration’ – she would attempt to move his soul, and with it part of the poison he’d swallowed, into another body. Carla asked if she could choose him a good family. ‘I don’t know if I understand, Carla,’ Amanda interrupts. ‘You do understand, Amanda, you understand perfectly,’ Carla replies. David disappeared for two hours and when he returned, his hands were streaked with dry mud, his feet were wet and he had red ring marks around his wrists, as if from rope tied around them too tightly. Carla couldn’t approach him – he no longer seemed like her child. On hearing the end of Carla’s story, Amanda needs to shorten the rescue distance: where is Nina?
Horses, worms, rope, souls, water: in this novel ordinary things are lurid, and lurid things are ordinary. The meaning of things, literal and imaginary, is under an odd sort of pressure. David had said at the start: ‘We’ll know the exact moment from a detail, you have to be observant.’ On a shopping trip, Nina is startled by a little girl with one short leg and ‘an enormous forehead that takes up more than half her face’. In the present, on her deathbed, Amanda can’t stop thinking about the story of David and the woman in the green house. ‘That is not important,’ David says. ‘How can it not be? That’s the story we need to understand,’ Amanda says. ‘No, that’s not the story, it has nothing to do with the exact moment. Don’t get distracted.’ What is this story about? Mothers? Worms? Poisoned water? Souls? No one story holds.
On the next day of the holiday, Amanda remembers, she saw a dog with three legs, ‘and since strange things always seem like warnings to me’, she turned back home. ‘Something is going to happen now,’ David says. Carla was waiting for her: ‘He’s in your house. David is in your house.’ Somehow, the two mothers couldn’t open the door, as if they were in a dream. Amanda glanced up at a window and saw Nina: ‘She looks cheerful and calm, and for a moment I am grateful that my sense of dread isn’t working right, that it was all a false alarm.’ They scrambled to get into the house and Amanda met David for the first time – ‘your eyes are red, and the skin around your eyes and mouth is a little thinner than normal, a little pinker’ – but overreacted when she couldn’t immediately find Nina, and threw both David and Carla out of the house. As David left he threw his mother’s sandals, towel and scarf into the pool. That such strange things are being told in everyday sentences makes them stranger. David could be possessed, or he could be ill. He could be ordinarily angry in the way of neglected sons, or he could be missing a part of his soul.
That night Amanda dreamed that Nina said to her: ‘I’m David.’ The dream unsettled her, and made her want to end the holiday – ‘the rescue distance, the rope is so short that I can barely move in the room, I can barely walk away from Nina’ – but she feels she should apologise to Carla first. Carla works for Sotomayor, the proprietor of the green soy fields all around. To find Carla, Amanda and Nina walk through a group of men drinking maté and unloading barrels. David asks what the rescue distance was at that moment, among the working men. ‘I’m sitting ten inches away from my daughter, David. There is no rescue distance.’ Nina noticed that her clothes were wet. ‘It’s dew,’ Amanda said. ‘It’ll dry.’ Nina smelled her hands: ‘It’s really gross.’
The epigraph to Fever Dream is from Jesse Ball’s 2011 novel The Curfew: ‘For the first time in a long while, he looked down and saw his hands. If you have had this experience, you’ll know what I mean.’ This is somewhat like the moment I’ve described as the unknotting moment of a dream, but instead of the uncanny making sense, here is something that seemed ordinary, or sure, suddenly seeming entirely different. The experience is not empty of guilt. Rather, it is as if guilt is inherent to this sort of awakening, unknotting moment. In this tableau – mother and child among the barrels – Nina couldn’t be closer to Amanda, and yet the moment is also, as David says, ‘the most important thing. This is everything we need to know.’ A girl couldn’t be safer by one measure and couldn’t be more in danger by another.
Schweblin now lives in Berlin, but she was born in Buenos Aires, where she brought out several collections of stories before Fever Dream, her first book to be translated into English. In ‘The Size of Things’, a story which appeared in the New Yorker last month, a grown man rearranges the toys in a shop every night, by colour, theme or secret design, bringing marvelling customers to the door every morning – until one day his mother is among them. Schweblin has talked of being interested in the ‘underground story’ in a piece of fiction: ‘The big secret is to tell the underground story while narrating the superficial one.’ In Fever Dream she keeps many stories – and meanings – in play: the eerie, symbolic dream narrative; the prosaic feminine realism of mothers talking to no purpose on a holiday; the creeping suspicion of the whodunnit. Each layer is soaked in dread, and the dread goes so deep that it works even on the third reading. Schweblin is also interested in this feeling, this almost physical reaction to her prose: the tightness in the chest, the hands that can’t stop turning pages, the threat registered in the pulse. ‘Whenever I explain this,’ she told an interviewer earlier this year, ‘I sound more mystic than I would like.’
It’s no surprise, and ultimately no spoiler, to discover that in Argentina’s north-eastern provinces, the world’s third biggest producer of soy, the spraying of pesticides near schools and homes and drinking water has caused cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders. Regulation is proving ineffective. How can anyone be saved from a danger that is all around, invisible? A child might stay close to its mother all its life and still not escape. I think of the nitrogen dioxide levels in London, which exceeded EU limits for a whole year five days into 2017. What if the ‘most important thing’ isn’t a mother’s love, as so many stories have it, but that we do something about what might be killing us?