Translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell
Every year I tell myself that 1) I will not be seduced by the Booker International longlist, 2) I will not acquire the book that appeals to me most, and 3) I will not thereby consign it to progressing no further. 2020? Fail, fail … and success (once more). Sigh. I, hereby, apologise to Samanta Schweblin, for I just could not resist the book cover of Little Eyes.
I’ll start by saying this impressed me much more than Schweblin’s universally lauded, Fever Dream, which I felt was all premise, and very little substance. True, Little Eyes also has a very strong premise. The world has gone mad for kentukis. Think of the kentuki as a robot with a webcam, dumb, but mobile and packaged in cuddly toy clothing (panda, dragon, crow) Each is inhabited and controlled by a human who has bought a dweller license. All the kentuki dweller does is observe its keeper.
That idea alone gives me the creeps. Who would bring such a thing into their house? The lonely, the look-at-me generation, those easily seduced by the latest gimmick, parents seeking company for their only child. What about the mind-set of the dwellers? The possibilities are endless.
Complications emerge when keeper and dweller want to properly connect with each other, when they find a way to establish communications with each other. Dwellers can move their kentuki to spell out messages, keepers can write messages to show to their kentukis. Usually they give their phone number, because they want to hear the human voice. The frightening thing keepers have no say is who becomes their dweller …
It could be child or adult. Someone with honourable motives, who feels their keeper is being abused by a real-life acquaintance. Or someone malevolent with a wish to extort. The most problematic dweller, ironically, is the one who refuses to communicate, whose kentuki stares soullessly back at its keeper. This behaviour seems to drive the keeper insane.
Schweblin explores these permutations and more in a series of short stories. At first I thought each chapter was a stand-alone salutary tale from a different part of the globe, but then characters began to reappear and narratives to deepen. (My readerly response reflecting the characters need for meaningful connection. How interesting is that?) I’m glad I kept reading, particularly after the first episode in which 3 silly young girls allow themselves to be blackmailed after catering to the whims of a voyeuristic dweller. After that though Schweblin steered herself in other less seedy and far more interesting psychological directions.
The psychological insight was the main takeaway for me, and the propensity of humans to be steered unwittingly or otherwise into situations they would never have contemplated. How for instance could a keeper become an abuser? That’s the clever inversion of the opening scenario that greets one keeper in the final episode. I found it a shocking and fitting climax.
Keepers or dwellers can cut the connection if matters become too intense for them. It can never be reestablished and the kentuki never reused. In the world of COVID-19 when the internet is saving the sanity of most, switching off is an unlikely option, but Schweblin’s tale is giving me a much needed pause for thought. I am surprised at how easily I have accepted the new normal, and how some of the newly-mooted tracking apps seem to be such a good idea. And yes, second thoughts about how much technology I use are long overdue.