Book Review: Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

May 10, 2020

Little Eyes, Samanta Schweblin
Trans. by Megan McDowell
Oneworld, 2020

Samanta Schweblin's new novel Little Eyes did not disappoint. I am a huge fan of Schweblin's short story collection Mouthful of Birds, which contains unique and eerie stories and perfectly controlled prose. Schweblin brings the same imagination and storytelling precision to Little Eyes.

There was an element of magical-realism that made Mouthful of Birds eerie, but Little Eyes ventures down a different eerie road. Little Eyes is about a new technology; and it's the believability of this technology and its corresponding consequences that bring the eerie element to Schweblin's latest novel.

Kentukis are small, pet-like robots that come in a variety of animal types: panda, mole, dragon, crow, bunny. Kentukis move around your home, controlled remotely, but not by you as the owner. Each kentuki is connected to an anonymous controller somewhere else in the world. The controller - or "dweller" is unable to communicate with the kentuki "keeper", but has full camera and audio access to the keeper's life and cannot be switched off.

The novel consists of different scenarios, some from the perspective of keepers, interacting with their new kentukis, others from the perspective of dwellers, watching the lives of their keepers through their computer screens. There are five narrative strands - scenarios we return to intermittently throughout the book - amongst a handful of random scenarios narrated in single chapters. The divide between keeper and dweller is maintained in each scenario and in chapters about kentuki keepers, the dwellers remain anonymous, even to the reader, adding mystery and intrigue to the story and affecting a real sense of concern in the reader, as we wonder who might be behind the camera.

There are two particularly genius elements to Little Eyes. Firstly, Schweblin has thoroughly considered the potential ramifications and benefits to this technology and covers them in the main scenarios and also in the smaller details in the book. Secondly, Schweblin manages to make each of the five narratives equally captivating. She maintains a balance throughout the book as we intermittently root for both dwellers and keepers and cycle through feelings of being for and against this technology.

The novel opens with a scenario in which a group of young girls expose their breasts to a kentuki camera and are then blackmailed by the kentuki dweller. The novel begins with negative consequences of this technology, speaking to the invasive and dangerous aspects of the technology that many of us would automatically think about. But Schweblin balances the plot with positive scenarios: a lonely, elderly woman finds companionship in the kentuki system; a young boy from Antigua is able to experience snow as a kentuki toy; crimes are witnessed and redressed. It's difficult to make up one's mind about the kentuki technology until the final chapter of each narrative in which Schweblin delivers the message that this technology is ultimately disturbing.

Other than the uses and effects of this technology, Schweblin explores questions about humanity. She raises the question: what kind of person decides to dwell in a kentuki rather than own and be watched by one? She also makes us confront our assumptions about who might be on the other side of the kentuki binary. And her characters enact cruelty, asking: what's acceptable when the kentuki is considered as an animal versus when the kentuki is thought of as a human behind a screen?

This is a fascinating concept which speaks to the increasing globalization of our world, our privacy concerns and a widespread loneliness and desire for connection. Schweblin's writing is succinct, precise and well-balanced with seamless dialogue. I've yet to read Schweblin's first novel Fever Dream but I am tempted to say that Schweblin is one of my favourite contemporary authors. Thanks also to Megan McDowell for her seamless and readable translation from Spanish to English.

I only have one negative thought about this novel and it's a small plot inconsistency. Otherwise, this novel is brilliant!


Get a copy of Little Eyes 

(If you've read Little Eyes and want to discuss this plot hole as if we're some sort of Schweblin trekkies, please feel free to reach out to me on social media or in the comments below; part of me does want to get this off my chest!)

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