There has always been a tinge of horror to Schweblin’s work, and here she gets full effect from violent interludes where the connections go sour. That hoary staple of an inanimate object coming alive can be just as frightening when you’ve paid for it to happen – even, or perhaps especially, when it’s a cuddly panda rolling closer with unknown intent. But as she works through the implications of her premise in a nimble, fast-moving narrative, what’s most impressive is the way she foregrounds her characters’ inner hopes and fears.
Longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, Little Eyes explores, in a seamless translation by Megan McDowell, the intrusion of technology on privacy and its effects on interpersonal connections. “Some form of technology has always been there,” Schweblin has said. “It’s not good or bad in itself.” But as we’ve seen with phenomena such as Tamagotchi digital pets and the online world Second Life, virtual connections risk seeming more compelling than real-life relationships. A lonely mother in Lima and her Hong Kong-based son each buy a kentuki, finding ersatz intimacy with an outsider easier than the real thing. A young man travelling to his uncle’s deathbed in Buenos Aires learns that the dying man has been gifting his possessions to his kentuki’s keeper, a boy about 12 years old.
So, yes — if you want a spookily prescient vision of human isolation both assuaged and deepened by inscrutable, glitch-prone tech, then Little Eyes more than fits the brief. Its fairly rudimentary kit — smartly, Schweblin makes the spy-toys’ low-spec clunkiness a key element — allows claustrophobic intimacy to flourish alongside physical distancing. Private passions seethe between connected pairs in Guatemala and Norway, or China and France. Forget Zoom- or Skype-style connectivity. Schweblin grasps that a relatively weak level of signal information and asymmetric functionality (a keeper has no prior knowledge of their kentuki’s dweller; a dweller observes, but can’t select or contact, their arbitrarily-assigned keeper) may sharpen the need for communication into a raging hunger.
The cycling nature of the narratives, cutting from one user to another, means we never get much momentum going, and despite the introduction of a few eye-catchingly horrible elements – a battery chick barn, a swastika shaved into a Kentuki’s head – the stories never really get the blood pounding. In fact the most shocking thing about Little Eyes, coming from Schweblin, is that it is not really shocking at all, but instead rather sensitive and tender. Well, almost.
Two-time Man Booker International nominee Samanta Schweblin has a considerable cult following, but fans may feel a little disappointed by this rather inconclusive tale...
This has a propulsive, Dave Eggers-ish readability, but it’s a shame that, for all her invention, Schweblin only ever gestures at larger questions of freedom, privacy and power.
The element of farce in these proceedings makes for enjoyable reading. As a mildly absurdist situational comedy riffing on everyday human foibles – jealousy, capriciousness, existential restlessness – Little Eyes is competently crafted; the understatedly arch tone is well served by Megan McDowell’s translation, which is so slick that one hardly seems to be reading a translated work. However, to the extent that the novel aspires to be a Black Mirror-esque satire, skewering our ambivalence towards technology by presenting us with a troubling near-dystopian scenario, it doesn’t quite convince.
That Schweblin introduces us to more keepers than dwellers only adds to the growing sense of unease. We, like them, don’t know who’s looking out from behind these various electronic eyes. Some keepers — like the Canadian family — we meet only once, while others — lonely old ladies, and impressionable youngsters amongst them — we return to on multiple occasions. These aren’t all tales of terror, but at best there’s still something off about them.