The best thing about specializing in literature is reading great books for class, and Samanta Schweblin’s Distancia de rescate is no exception. I was delighted to discover that this excellent novel also has an excellent translation — Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell. My review here is unique compared to the others I have done on this website because it is actually a review of both texts. That might sound complicated, but I can make it work. 😘
I’m not one for beating around the bush, so I have to say right off that this book is weird. It plays with perspective in a manner that I find utterly fascinating and utterly disconcerting. The text is a conversation between a woman, Amanda, and a young boy, David. David’s voice guides the text, in that the majority of what we read is a stream of consciousness coming from Amanda, that is interrupted by David’s interjections, which lead the text in a particular direction toward where he wants it to go, to discover the source of los gusanos or the worms.
Staff writer Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker referred to “The Sick Thrill” of this text, and she wasn’t wrong. However, eerie as Fever Dream may be (and trust me — it’s definitely eerie) the English text simply didn’t grasp me in its clutches the way the Spanish did. Some of that probably has to do with the fact that I read the English after, and already knew the ending, but part of it was simply the language.
As an easy example, let’s look at los gusanos, the worms. On a purely phonetic and phonological level, gusanos is more sinister and slippery than worms. The idea of worms in the body is disturbing and discomforting in any language, and is part of what makes the opening exchange between David and Amanda so compelling and ominous, but the Spanish has an extra pull to it that, due to the constraints of the language, the English translation doesn’t pull off quite as well.
The Spanish title Distancia de rescate literally means “Distance to rescue”, more commonly translated as “rescue distance”. It represents a prevalent theme throughout the book, which is that Amanda is constantly waiting for a kind of disaster, and thus calculating the distance between her and her daughter, Nina, and whether she is close enough to rescue her should anything bad happen to them. Nina occupies the majority of Amanda’s thought, and the priorities between what Amanda and David consider to be important shine through in a moment toward the beginning of the book, where Amanda, panicking as she lies in the rural hospital clinic asks David where Nina is, and when he says that doesn’t matter her reply is that Nina’s location and wellbeing are the only thing that matters. Nevertheless the swelling tide of the prose continues on, but the panic over Nina permeates throughout the text.
While changing the title for the English translation loses some of the emphasis on the idea of a “rescue distance” what it does emphasize is the other main theme of the book, which is the nature of Amanda and David’s relationship. The whole exchange between them is happening as Amanda lies dying in a hospital bed, for reasons that we do not understand until later in the book. The way that the narration works is that italics represent David’s dialogue, and the regular text reads as a first person narration by Amanda. Amanda’s perspective is very stream of consciousness, and indeed one thing that kept me reading this book past my bedtime is that there are no chapter, or even section breaks in the entire 81 pages of my Spanish ebook or the 183 pages of my English paperback. The book is short, but it definitely packs a punch, with not a single word wasted. There is a sense of urgency to the text, almost a compulsion to not put it down. Fever Dream is a perfect alternate title because beyond the fact that one can argue that Amanda is suffering from a fever dream throughout the text, on another level the title captures both the dreamlike quality and the frantic pace of the book.
On the whole I highly recommend this title, both versions of it. While reading I felt like my heart was going to leap out of my throat, but I do mean that in the best way possible. I do suggest that if you can read Spanish Distancia de rescate is better, but I also thoroughly enjoyed reading Fever Dream, so if you are only able to read the English translation that is a perfectly acceptable substitute.