Short Story Review – Samanta Schweblin – On the Steppe (trans. Janet Hendrickson)

In mid to late 2017 my wife and I decided we’d try to have a baby.  So, we did what most people do – we threw caution to the wind, we bought ovulation tests, we tried our hardest.  And then the period came.  She was sad, and I rationalised the situation by saying that we weren’t ‘really’ trying until 2018 anyway.

And then the whole process would begin again.  Period trackers, ovulation trackers, forced sexual activity.  It was terrible.  Stresses appeared when before there were none at all, and what should have been a pleasant, loving experience became a chore – literally.

It wasn’t for us, we gave up after a couple of months, and decided to go to Europe for Christmas.

All of this is to preface Samanta Schweblin’s unsettling story, On the Steppe.  In it, the narrator and her partner, Pol, have moved to the steppe, away from cities, away even from the nearest town.  They are attempting to achieve something, to capture something, and while it’s never outright stated, it isn’t too hard to see the story as a metaphor for the difficulties related to conceiving, and the way it can cause a feeling of jealousy towards others, of resentment of one another, of ridiculous plots and plans to try to make a baby happen.

But the story is stranger than that, and stronger for it, though I think that in the end its final note is too unclear to leave the story an unqualified success.

It opens with the narrator summarising life on the steppe while obliquely referring to their reason for moving there, living there.  They go out each night with nets and equipment, in order to locate ‘one’.  They want ‘one’ of their own, and as they hunt, the narrator dreams of fertility.  The concepts of hunting for food and conceiving commingle and blur together.  There is a reference to ‘seeing them at dawn’, and each day they strategise and talk about how they might hunt better that night, achieve more next time.

It’s curious, and become even more so when Pol reveals that he has learned of a couple, Arnol and Nabel, saying that they ‘had the same problem’ but now they have one, and have had him for a month.  The narrator can’t believe it – is it possible to find one out here, after all?

Nabel is more talkative at dinner.  While the men chat, we discover that our lives are similar.  Nabel asks me for advice about plants, and then I feel inspired and talk about recipes for fertility.  I bring it up as if it were a joke, just a witty remark, but Nabel shows her interest right away, and I discover that she tried them, too.

The women share fertility stories – and recipes, continuing the theme of hunting, food, gorging – while the men discuss insecticides and business.  As the story approaches its end, Pol excuses himself to go to the bathroom while the other three remain.  They discuss ‘him’, with Nabel and Arnol speaking only in vague terms, and all the while they deflect any idea of actually getting up and seeing ‘him’.  It’s clear he is in the house, but he’s asleep, and they reason that seeing him sleeping wouldn’t do anyone any good.  But this makes no sense, and the feeling of dread rises and rises.

Pol sneaks into the bedroom, his shirt is ripped, there is blood, Arnol runs at him with a gun, they escape the house and drive, drive, drive.  What has happened?  We don’t know.  They drive through the night, quiet and scared and certain in the knowledge that their time has not yet come, and that they have disturbed something which should have remained at rest.  There is a slight sense toward the feeling that might come from tipping over a sacred object in a church, or, I suppose, more cleanly, waking a sleeping baby.  No matter how curious, some desires must be left alone.

And what I can, perhaps, add, is that your mind can do terrible things when you are trying so hard to conceive a child, and are unable to.  You resent other people quite strongly, and hate the ease with which some people are able to fall pregnant.  You come up with elaborate rituals, or you read about them at least.  Is it any stranger to douche yourself with egg whites than it is to go hunting at night?  The former is, at any rate, a tip from a fertility book which we did not end up trying.  But it is just as bizarre, connected to nature, and seemingly arbitrary.

Nabel and Arnol are shown to know something unknowable, something larger than the narrator and Pol, and it’s pretty clear to the reader that they won’t become privy to this information themselves unless they find their own.  Whether that’s at dawn, or some other way, On the Steppe suggests that parenthood is a different state of being, and that those poor souls who are scrabbling to enter this club are best left in darkness, ignorant until they, too, can learn what it is to be a mother or a father.

And as for me, I suppose I’ll find out if any of this is true in late September.

On the Steppe is a short story by Argentinean writer Samanta Schweblin, and was translated by Janet Hendrickson.  This short story was published in the Open Letter collection, The Future is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction.

Other  titles from The Future is Not Ours under review include:

Author Samanta Schweblin
Title On the Steppe
Translator Janet Hendrickson
Nationality Argentinean
Publisher Open Letter

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


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