Fever Dream has recently landed on the International Booker Prize shortlist. From a publishing point of view you can see the attraction. It’s short, sharp and more or less to the point. You can read it one sitting and the world it creates is hypnotic. The book does possess a mesmeric quality, assisted by the dialectical approach of question and answer. There are effectively two narrators, and their combined quest to find out ‘what happened’ drives the increasingly strange narrative forwards. A woman, on the point of death, is talking to someone, relating a story about how she’s fallen into a feverish state shorty after going away for a holiday in the countryside with her young daughter. There’s an eco-reference, which may or may not go over the heads of it’s non-Latino audience. The implied cause of the fever, which seems to be about to kill her, is the water in the fields, which has been contaminated by the use of agro-chemicals. This reflects the shocking problems of the agriculture industry in both Argentina and Uruguay, and perhaps further afield, where the groundwater has become so contaminated that rivers have become poisonous and much of the local produce contains toxins. Nature has been turned on its head.
Fever Dream is a concise, compelling and clever piece of storytelling. Yet, at the end of the novel, finished in the bath, I actually found myself shouting out loud: “Cortazar”. Because in a way, this book is a tribute or a riff on the work of the great Argentine writer, Cortazar. Cortazar’s stories tightroped along the edge of reality and fantasy. The unstable narrator, the feverish warping of the reality established within the story’s world: all of this was, to a certain extent, perfected by Cortazar. It’s perhaps invidious to make comparisons, except that Schweblin, as an Argentine writer, will surely be aware that her novel has so much in common with his work. Fever Dream is a fine piece of writing and will do well, but I would urge anyone who has enjoyed Schweblin’s novel to get a hold of Cortazar’s short stories, and sink your teeth into them.