Brief EncountersInternational LiteratureShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 8: “Toward Happy Civilization” by Samanta Schweblin; Megan McDowell, trans.

From Mouthful of Birds

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Writing about the stories in Mouthful of Birds, the first collection in English from Argentinian-born Samanta Schweblin, many critics alight on two aspects of the author’s storytelling: her sense of the uncanny and characters suffering a kind of paralysis. Alexandra Valahu, writing in PRISM International, states, “Characters [in the collection] frequently bemoan their current situations and wish to wake up to an ordinary day, but they are never able to. They are stuck in fields, and by train tracks, in situations they desperately want to change and in realities that refuse to remould themselves to their liking. The true feeling of dread that seeps into the reader’s reality is … rooted in … the idea that characters are always stuck somewhere.” Daniel Hahn echoes Valahu in a review for The Guardian: “These settings are empty, nonspecific, with social rules that might as well be arbitrary, peopled by characters who feel misplaced; they may be stuck here, but that doesn’t mean they will accept their realities.”

The pushback to their absurd stasis is what separates Schweblin’s characters from those of, say, Samuel Beckett; what unites the two is the sense that the defiance is ultimately futile (something that aligns Schweblin with another classic modernist: Kafka). This is certainly true of Gruner, the central figure in “Toward Happy Civilization.”

In one respect, Gruner would be right at home in a typical Kafka story. An office drone who works in an anonymous city, Gruner finds himself stuck at a rural train station without exact change to pay for a ticket. The stationmaster refuses to accommodate the man, and when his train pulls in, the official waves it off so that it blasts through the station without even stopping. This happens repeatedly, until Gruner is enticed to stay the night with the stationmaster, Pe, and his wife, Fi, as there are no more trains that day.

Immediately, we are presented with prototypically Kafkaesque scenario: a lone man is frustrated by a pervasive and seemingly indifferent bureaucracy. His attempts to reach the city – for Gruner, the locus of “happy civilization” – are thwarted for reasons that appear patently illogical: the man has money for the train, just not exact change. When he offers to trade all the money he has on his person for a ticket, he is rebuffed.

But the trappings of Kafka disappear the following morning, with the introduction of three other figures – Gong, Gill, and Cho – who appear to be workers in the employ of Pe and Fi. The three men’s provenance is made clear in a single sentence: “Gruner’s actions that first day are the same as those of everyone who has ever been in his situation.” Not only is Gruner not the first person to become trapped at the station, this is habitual; the implication is many others besides Gong, Gill, Cho, and Gruner have befallen a similar fate.

What becomes apparent is that the three men, all of them professionals – Gong an expert on “theories of efficiency and group work”; Gill a lawyer; Cho an accountant – have been adopted into a kind of ad hoc family with Pe and Fi. Slowly, Gunter becomes embroiled in the collective, helping out around the house and eating meals with the others. But he never loses his desire to escape from the train station and find his way back to his office in the city.

Throughout the story, Schewblin highlights the oft-explored dichotomy between the urban and the rural. The “happy civilization” of the city is juxtaposed with the almost primitive aspects of family life at the rural outpost: Cho goes out to hunt for dinner, while Gong and Gill assist Pe with the fieldwork. “Under Pe’s instructions, the office workers work the earth. Barefoot, their pants rolled up to their ankles, they smile and laugh at their own jokes without losing the rhythm of their tasks.” Gruner refuses to take part, instead hiding away from the others and observing them at a distance, all the while trying to figure out a way to escape his predicament.

The sense of absurdity and creeping paranoia that accumulates as the story unfolds has much to do with Schweblin’s staunch refusal to address specifics of the situation. We are given no specifics about Gruner or any of the other characters. What brought Gruner to the train station in the first place? Where precisely is he going in the city? (All we know is that his “office” is there.) Why do he and the other office workers not simply walk away from the train station? What in their psychological makeups convinces them they are stuck without the ability to either depart on foot in the direction of the city or return from whence they came? The unanswered questions create a tension that makes the story more claustrophobic, not less.

While Gruner remains determined to find a means of egress – “There’s no one more stubborn than an office worker like him” – what separates him from the trio of office workers who have already been adopted into Pe and Fi’s makeshift family is not clear. What does come clear, to Gruner, is a veiled dissatisfaction on the part of Gong, Gill, and Cho: “Then, bit by bit, begin to see the office workers’ happiness as false. Doubt it all: Cho’s innocent gratitude, Gong’s spirited hospitality, and Gill’s unflaggingly subservient attitude.”

The imperatives in these sentences indicates that Gruner’s growing suspicions form part of the cycle undergone by “everyone who has ever been in his situation.” Gruner may think he is an independent person possessed of free will, but there is an inevitability to his decisions and actions that suggests whatever the outcome, it has been predetermined from the start. When Gong, Gill, and Cho display a measure of rebelliousness by spitting in Pe and Fi’s bed while they are changing the bedclothes, the act prompts Gruner to determine that if they work together they can escape their situation.

But escape is a relative term, and the story’s final stages indicate that the thing Gruner most desires – being allowed to board the train that is destined for the city – is itself a form of entrapment. The idea of what constitutes a “happy civilization” is contingent upon circumstance, and the grass is always greener wherever you are not. The twist at the story’s end is not an artificial imposition, but the logical extension of the theme of paralysis that has pervaded to this point. The final sentence, in this context, is as chilling as it is contingent: “A final feeling, shared by all, is of fear: the sense that, when they reach their destination, there will be nothing left at all.”

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