In ‘Toward Happy Civilization’, a portrait of desperation
What happens when a traveller finds himself amid strangers in a ghostly, uninhabited train station? In "Toward Happy Civilization", written originally in Spanish by Samanta Schweblin and translated into English by Megan McDowell, we find the bone-chilling answers.
Gruner, our protagonist, has lost his ticket. Now he can't hop on the last train passing before his eyes. As night rolls in, the sole inhabitants of the rural station—Fi and Pe—take him in. What initially seems like a hospitable and warm one-night emergency stayover stretches into weeks and months. Gruner finds he's 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 always go in vain. Under Pe and Fi's supervision, they end up working in their farm and doing household chores in exchange for shelter and food.
Typical of any Samanta Schweblin story from her International Booker-longlisted collection, Mouthful of Birds (OneWorld, 2019), a sense of anxiety is strongly perceptible here, especially through the characters Fi and Pe. One grows afraid of them as they start showing both lovingly caring and Big Brother-like tendencies. What heightens the ominous halo surrounding these two is the hostages' inability to translate their emotions; why would someone who provides for you not give you a way out? Take this scene, for instance:
""Is there a reason you won't sell me a ticket?" asks Gruner.
The man looks at the woman and asks for dessert. From the oven emerges an apple tart that is soon cut into even slices. The man and woman exchange a tender glance when they see how Gruner devours his portion."
Schweblin's restrained use of language infuses her stories with a sinister mood, as well evident here. She enriches the mood by foregrounding the protagonist's battle via a dog—it is decaying in the station, uncared for, seemingly trapped in an endlessly repetitive circle of time.
The hostages' hopelessness easily resonates with the current times—political turmoil, looming dangers of climate crisis, and a pandemic, among other things, make the reader think of their own position in the light of such macro events. Like our characters, everyone is hostage to one thing or another, trying their heart and soul to escape. Their situation also reminds us how certain states serve as a parent entity that's meant to protect, but in actuality do otherwise. This story also toys with the idea of landscape as a prison: Is rural life a cage? Or is it the urban landscape?
Not much happens in "Toward Happy Civilization". It is concerned with the hostages' planning, plotting, and adjusting around heaps of failures. The skillful mood-building and the anxiety constantly lurking in the background propels the story forward. Adding to this combination, repetition (the way Fe and Pi keep caring for the hostages) keeps the reader on their toes. As expected from the author, every scene is pacey and imbued with suspense and longing. Much like Fe and Pi's grip on the hostages, the story doesn't easily slither off the reader's mind, mostly because the ending leaves one pondering about its true meaning—is it mere tragicomedy populated by mysterious figures? Or is there a bigger philosophical question hiding beneath the surface? I will have to leave the questions to the readers to avoid giving away spoilers.
Samanta Schweblin's "Toward Happy Civilization" can be found on The Atlantic website.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a contributor.