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Sinister toy story: Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin, reviewed

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

Little Eyes Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Oneworld, pp.256, 14.99

We often hear that science fiction — or ‘speculative’ fiction, as the buffs prefer — can draw premonitory outlines of the shape of things to come. Well, consider the case of this novel by an acclaimed Argentinian-born, Berlin-based writer, first published in Spanish last year. Little Eyes imagines a gadget (nothing fancy really, just a plush animal toy with camera and wifi implants) that creates a private but silent connection between its owner anda single, remote watcher.

The ‘keeper’, who buys the $279 electronic pet known as a kentuki, doesn’t know the identity of the ‘dweller’, who pays to observe another life from afar and who can move the felt-covered ‘big stiff egg’ around the keeper’s home a bit, like some stair-averse miniature Dalek. But fail to recharge a kentuki and it dies forever: no second chances.

For all their limitations, these sinister little pandas, moles, crows and rabbits fly off the world’s shelves. ‘Ultimately, people loved restrictions.’ And if lonely humans crave companionship, even from a factory-made surveillance device clad in tacky fake pelt, so ‘everyone loves to watch, to be a voyeur’.

While the keeper acquires an invisible housemate, the dweller becomes ‘an anonymous actor in someone else’s life’. Samanta Schweblin stitches their experiences into a global tapestry of stories, from Mexico to Croatia, Peru to Italy. Veiled, virtual relationships spring up. They blossom into trust, lust, love, suspicion, jealousy or hate, or else combust in acts of violence that may see the hapless kentuki disconnected, slashed, stomped, drowned or even buried ‘alive’ in fits of vicarious rage. ‘They were important to each other,’ thinks ‘dweller’ Emilia in Lima about the German woman she oversees in faraway Erfurt, via a fluffy wired bunny: ‘What they experienced together was real.’ Emilia, like several kentuki junkies here, feels that ‘she had two lives, and that was much better than barely having one’. But a second life can blow up like your first.

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.

Schweblin’s semi-robotic pets, with human ghosts in their machines, belong in a long line of mind-haunted automata that stretches back to the uncanny androids of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Like these gothic forebears, Schweblin deploys a fantastic conceit — here only mildly fanciful —as a Petri dish for human terrors and desires. ‘Branches of understanding and solidarity’ do grow at either end of some connections. So does the temptation to ‘fraud, theft and extortion’, as remote snitching, blackmail and system-gaming enterprise booms.

In Zagreb, canny Grigor runs a kentuki ‘farm’ and sits pretty in his tablet-packed room, ‘a panoptic window with multiple eyes all around the world’. Grigor aside, however, we witness little corporate or state exploitation of the kentuki craze. Adroitly served by Megan McDowell’s winningly deadpan translation, these stories deal not in ‘truly brutal plots’ but ‘desperately human and quotidian’ urges, fears and scams. Schweblin shuns splashy dystopian gestures — think what a Stephen King or a Ray Bradbury might have done with this premise.In the middle of our stay-at-home, broadband-enabled apocalypse, that feels right.

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