31 Aug 2021
What happens when a traveler finds himself surrounded by strangers at a ghostly, uninhabited train station? In “Toward Happy Civilization”, originally written in Spanish by Samanta Schweblin and translated into English by Megan McDowell, we find the frightening answers.
Gruner, our protagonist, has lost his ticket. From now on, he can no longer board the last train that passes before his eyes. As night falls, the only inhabitants of the rural resort – Fi and Pe – welcome him. What initially appeared to be a warm, hospitable emergency overnight stay spanned weeks and months. Gruner discovers that he is not alone in their house. There are others like him: Gong, Cho and Gill. All of them are desperate to buy tickets from Pe and Fi, but their efforts are always in vain. Under Pe and Fi’s supervision, they end up working on their farm and doing household chores in exchange for shelter and food.
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Typical of any Samanta Schweblin story from her collection selected by International Booker, Bird bite (OneWorld, 2019), a feeling of anxiety is strongly perceptible here, especially through the characters Fi and Pe. They are scared of as they begin to show both affectionate tendencies and Big Brother-like tendencies. What accentuates the threatening halo that surrounds these two is the inability of the hostages to translate their emotions; why wouldn’t someone who takes care of you give you a way out? Take this scene, for example:
“‘Is there a reason you don’t sell me a ticket? Gruner asks.
The man looks at the woman and asks for a dessert. From the oven comes an apple pie which is soon cut into regular slices. The man and woman exchange tender looks when they see how Gruner devours his share. “
Schweblin’s restricted use of language imbues his stories with a sinister mood, just as evident here. She enriches the mood by bringing the protagonist’s battle to the fore via a dog – he’s decomposing in the train station, careless, seemingly trapped in an endlessly repeating time circle.
Hostage desperation easily resonates with the present times – political turmoil, looming dangers of the climate crisis, and a pandemic, among others, make the reader think about their own position in light of such macro events. Like our characters, everyone is held hostage to one thing or another, trying to escape body and soul. Their situation also reminds us of how some states serve as parent entities that are supposed to protect, but actually do otherwise. This story also plays with the idea of the landscape as a prison: is rural life a cage? Or is it the cityscape?
Not much is happening in “Towards a Happy Civilization”. It’s about planning, plotting, and adjusting hostages around heaps of failures. The skillful mood building and the anxiety that constantly lurks in the background propels the story forward. In addition to this combination, the repetition (the way Fe and Pi continue to deal with hostages) keeps the reader on guard. As expected from the author, each scene is punctuated and imbued with suspense and nostalgia. Much like Fe and Pi’s hold on the hostages, the story doesn’t easily slip out of the reader’s mind, mainly because the ending gives reason to reflect on its true meaning: is it a simple tragicomedy populated by mysterious characters? Or is there a bigger philosophical question lurking beneath the surface? I’ll have to leave the questions to readers to avoid giving away spoilers.
“Toward Happy Civilization” by Samanta Schweblin can be found on Atlantic website.
Shah Tazrian Achrafi is a contributor.