Samanta Schweblin’s new collection of short stories, Mouthful of Birds (Oneworld) is a dark and brooding mix, where the playing out of narrative games and puzzles probe the artificial nature of storytelling. In Heads Against Concrete, an artist with a distorted social outlook and a propensity for violence suffers a spiralling episode.
Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize
H e a d s A g a i n s t C o n c r e t e
If you pound a person’s head against concrete—even if you’re doing it only so they’ll come to their senses—you will very likely end up hurting them. This is something my mother explained to me early on, the day I pounded Fredo’s head on the asphalt of the school playground. I wasn’t a violent kid, I want to make that clear. I spoke only if it was strictly necessary, and I didn’t have friends or enemies to fight with. The only thing I did at recess was wait in the classroom, alone and far from the noise of the playground, until class started again. While I waited, I drew. It passed the time, and distanced me from the world. I drew locked boxes and fish shaped like puzzle pieces that fit together.
Fredo was the captain of the football team, and in our grade, things happened and were done the way he wanted. He did what he wanted with other people. Like that time Cecilia’s uncle died and he made her think he’d done it. That’s not good, but I don’t stick my nose in other people’s problems. One day during recess, Fredo came into the classroom, grabbed the drawing I was working on, and ran out. The drawing was of two puzzle-piece fish, each one in a box, and the two boxes inside another box. I got that thing about the boxes inside of more boxes from a painter Mom likes, and all the teachers loved it and said it was “a very poetic device.” On the playground, Fredo was tearing the drawing in half, and the halves in half, and so on, while his friends stood around him and laughed. When he couldn’t tear the pieces any smaller, he threw them all into the air.
The first thing I felt was sadness. That’s not a figure of speech—I always think about how I feel in the moment that things are happening to me, and maybe that’s what makes me slower or more distracted than everyone else. Next, my body hardened, I closed my fists and felt my temperature rise. I lunged at Fredo, pulled him down to the ground with me, and grabbed him by the hair. And that was when I started to pound his head against the ground. Our teacher shouted, and another teacher from a different class came to separate us, and nothing else happens in this Fredo story. I’m telling it because I guess that was the start of everything, and when Mom wants to know something she always says, “From the beginning, from the be-ginning, please!”
In high school I had another “episode.” I was still drawing, and no one touched my pictures because they knew I believed in things like good and evil, and the latter category, which is what people in general spent their time on, bothered me. The fight with Fredo had earned me some respect from the class, and they didn’t mess with me anymore. But that year there was a new boy who thought he was really smart, and he found out that Cecilia had been indisposed for the first time the day before. And at recess he came into the classroom and filled her pencil case with red paint. I saw it all from my desk, where I was quietly drawing.
In the next class, when Cecilia went to get a pen, her fingers and clothes got all stained. And the boy started to yell that she was a whore, that Cecilia was a whore like her mother and all the rest, which in a way also included my mother. I didn’t have a crush on Cecilia, but I hit that boy’s head against the floor until it started to bleed. The teacher had to call in backup to separate us. While they were restraining us so we wouldn’t get into it again, I asked him if his brain was draining a little better now. I thought the phrase was inspired, but I was the only one who laughed. They filled my report card with warnings and suspended me from school for two days. Mom was mad at me, too, but I heard her say over the phone that her son “wasn’t used to intolerance and all he wanted to do was protect that poor girl.” From then on Cecilia did everything possible to be my friend.
It really got on my nerves to always have her so close, staring at me. She wrote me letters about friendship and love and hid them in my stuff. I went on drawing. My mom had signed me up for the drawing and painting workshop at school, which was every Friday. The teacher sent us to buy paper, much bigger than the kind I’d used until then. Also paints and brushes. The teacher showed my work to the class and explained why I was “so inventive,” just how I had accomplished it, and what I “wanted to convey with each brushstroke.” In the workshop I learned how to do all of the extremities of puzzle pieces in 3‑D, to paint blurred backgrounds that, “against the realism of a horizon, give a sense of abstraction,” and to use hairspray on the best pieces so they would be preserved and “the colors wouldn’t lose their intensity.”
Painting was the most important thing to me. There were other things I liked, such as watching TV, doing nothing, and sleeping. But painting was the best. There was a painting competition in my junior year, and the winning work would be displayed in the lobby. The jury was the drawing teacher, the principal, and her secretary. The three of them “unanimously” chose my work as “the most representative,” and they hung my painting in the entrance to the school.
In those days, Cecilia liked to say I was in love with her, and always had been. That the red fish and the blue fish that I’d started to draw between the puzzle pieces was a “romantic abstraction of our relationship.” That one fish’s puzzle piece fit in with the other’s because that’s how we were, “made for each other.” During a break one day I found that someone had written our names over the fish in the picture; then, on the chalkboard in the classroom, I saw a giant heart pierced by an arrow with our names. It was the same handwriting as on the painting. Everyone had seen it, and they sat looking at one another with rude grins.
Cecilia smiled at me, blushing, and again I felt that uncontrollable desire to hit, and even before anything happened I saw the image of her head smashing down, her scalp bashing over and over against the uneven ground, her head splitting open, the blood clumping in her hair. I felt my body lunge at her wildly, and then, for some reason, stop short. It was like an “illumination”— people who know about these things explained it to me much later. And the “illumination” helped me avoid the images I had just seen, and I had the first impulse that led to everything that came after: I ran to the drawing and painting workshop on the second floor—some of the kids, including Cecilia, followed me—and I took paints and paper from the cabinets and sat down to draw. I drew it all. An extreme close‑up of the fear in one of Cecilia’s terrified eyes, a slice of her sweaty forehead covered with zits and blackheads. The rough ground below her, the tips of my strong fingers just barely in the picture, tangled in her hair, and then red, pure red, staining everything.
If I’m asked what I learned in school, I can reply only that I learned to paint. Everything else went away just as it came, and there’s nothing left. Nor did I study anything else after high school. I paint pictures of heads hitting the ground, and people pay me fortunes for them. I live in a loft in downtown Buenos Aires. My bedroom and bathroom are upstairs, the kitchen is downstairs, and all the rest is my studio, or “atelier,” as Aníbal likes to call it. Some people ask me for portraits of their own heads. They like gigantic square canvases, and I make them up to six feet by six feet. They pay me whatever I ask. Later I see the paintings hung in their enormous, empty living rooms, and I think that those guys deserve to see themselves good and smashed on the ground by my hand, and they seem very much to agree when they stand in front of the paintings. You’d have to see them to understand what kind of picture I’m talking about. I mean, they’re really good pictures.
I don’t like to have girlfriends. I dated some girls, but it never worked out. Sooner or later they start to demand more time or ask me to say things I really don’t feel. One time I tried saying what I felt, and it was worse. Another time, one of them went completely crazy, and I hadn’t said absolutely anything. She decided I didn’t love her, that I was never going to love her; she forced me to grab her by the hair and started to hit her own head against the wall. I don’t think relationships like that are healthy.
Aníbal, who is my representative and the guy in charge of putting my paintings in galleries and deciding the price of each thing I do, says that the woman thing isn’t good for us. He says that masculine energy is superior, because it’s not scattered and it is monothematic. Monothematic means you think about only one thing, but he never says what that thing is. He says that women are fine at first, “when they’re really fine,” and also at the end, because he saw his father die in his mother’s arms and that’s a good way to die. But everything in between “is just hell.” He says that for now I have to concentrate on what I know how to do, which is saying nothing and painting.
He’s bald and fat, and no matter what’s happening, he’s always talking nonstop and panting as if he were out of breath. Aníbal used to be a painter, but he never wants to talk about that. Since I spend all my time in my studio and he persuaded my mom not to bother me, he usually stops by at noon to bring me food and take a look at what I’m working on. He stands in front of the paintings with his thumbs hooked in the front pockets of his jeans, and he always says the same things: “More red, it needs more red.” Or: “Bigger, I need to see it from across the street.” And almost always, before he leaves: “My man, you’re a mega-genius. A mega-genius.” When I don’t feel good because I’m sad or tired, I look in the bathroom mirror, hook my thumbs in my jeans, and tell myself: “You’re a mega-genius. A mega-genius.” Sometimes it works.
And now comes the important part of the story. So, I’d always had a terrible hole between my back right two molars, in my “superior maxilla,” and at some point I started getting the food I ate stuck in there. I ended up with some unbearable cavities. Aníbal said I couldn’t go to just any dentist, because after women, dentists were the worst. He handed me a business card and said: “He’s Korean, but he’s good.” He got me an appointment for that same afternoon.
John Sohn looked young and I thought maybe he was my age, but it’s hard to guess Korean people’s ages. He gave me a little anesthesia, drilled my teeth, and filled the holes he’d made with paste. All with a perfect smile and without hurting me at any point. I liked him, so I told him how I painted heads against concrete. John Sohn was silent for a moment, which turned out to be like a moment of “illumination”—which made me think we had something important in common—and he said, “That’s just what I’ve been looking for.” He invited me to have dinner in one of those real Korean restaurants. I mean, not a touristy one, but the kind you enter through a little door you wouldn’t think led anywhere, and then inside it turns out there’s a whole Korean world. Big round tables even if you have only two people, and the menu in Korean, and all the waiters are Korean, and all the customers are Korean.
John Sohn chose a traditional dish for me and gave the waiter precise instructions on how to prepare it. John Sohn needed someone to paint a gigantic painting for his waiting room. He said the important thing was the tooth. He wanted to make a deal: I’d paint the picture, and he would fix all my teeth. He explained why he wanted the painting, how it would affect the customers, and the value of advertising in his culture. He talked nonstop, like Aníbal, and I like it when someone else does all the talking. When we finished eating, John Sohn introduced me to some Koreans at the table next to us, and we had coffee with them. Now, I don’t speak Korean, so I didn’t understand anything. But watching them talk helped me realize that now I had a dentist friend, and I had an important deal with my dentist friend, and that that was very good.
I spent many days working on John’s picture, until one morning I woke up on the sofa in the studio, looked at the canvas, and felt a deep gratitude: his friendship had given me my best picture. I called him at his office and John was very happy, I know because when something excites him he talks even faster, and sometimes he talks in Korean. He said he would come over for lunch. It was the first time a friend had come to visit me. I orga-nized the paintings a little, making sure to leave the best ones in view.
I picked up my clothes and carried them up to the bed-room, and brought the used plates and glasses to the kitchen. I took food from the fridge and set it out on a tray. When John arrived he looked all around for the picture, but I told him that it “wasn’t time yet,” and he respected that because Koreans know a lot about respect, or at least that’s what he always said. So we sat down to lunch. I asked if he wanted more salt, if he preferred something hot, if I could pour him more soda. But everything was fine with him. I thought how maybe he could come over some night to watch movies or chat about whatever. We could take a photo together to display somewhere, like people do with “family and friends.” But I didn’t say anything about that yet. John ate and talked. He did it all at once, and it didn’t bother me because that’s intimacy, it’s part of being friends. I don’t know how he got on the subject, but he started talking about “Korean kids” and education in his country. Kids start school at six in the morning and they leave at noon the next day; that is, they spend almost a day and a half in school and they have only five hours free, which they use to go home, sleep a little, and return. He said those are the things that distinguish the Koreans from the Argentines, that set them apart from the rest of the world.
I didn’t like that, but you can’t like everything about a friend, that’s what I believe. And I think that all in all, in spite of his comments, we were fine. I smiled. “I want you to see the paint-ing,” I told him. We walked to the center of the room. He took a few steps back, calculating the distance, and when I felt the time was right, I pulled off the sheet that covered the picture. John had small, fine hands, like a woman’s, and he was always moving them to explain what he was thinking. But his hands stayed still, hanging from his arms like they were dead. I asked what was wrong. He said that the painting was supposed to be about the tooth. That what he wanted was a gigantic painting for his wait-ing room, a painting of a tooth. He repeated that several times.
We looked at the painting together: the face of a Korean crashing against the black and white tiles of a waiting room very much like John’s. My hand isn’t there pounding the head, it’s falling on its own, and the first thing that hits the gleaming tiles, the thing that receives the whole weight of the fall, is one of the Korean’s teeth. It has a vertical crack that, an instant later, will split it right down the middle. I couldn’t understand what wasn’t working for John—the painting was perfect. And I realized I wasn’t willing to change a thing. Then John said that’s how it always was at the end of the day, and he started in again on the subject of Korean education. He said we Argentines are slackers. That we don’t like to work, and that’s why our country is the way it is. That it would never change, because we were how we were, and he left.
Now, that really bothered me. I mean a lot. Because my mother and Aníbal are Argentines, too, and they work a lot, and it bothers me when people talk without knowing what they’re talking about. But I told myself that John was my friend. I contained my rage, and I felt very proud of that.
The next day I wrote him an email explaining that I could change whatever he wanted me to change in the painting. I clarified that I didn’t agree with him “aesthetically,” but I understood that maybe he needed something more “commercial.” I waited a couple of days, but John didn’t answer. Then I wrote him again. I thought maybe he was offended by something, and I explained that if he was, I needed to know what it was, exactly, because otherwise I couldn’t apologize. But John didn’t answer that email, either.
Mom called Aníbal and explained to him that this was all happening because I was “very sensitive,” and I wasn’t prepared for “failure.” But that didn’t have anything to do with it. After seven days with no word I decided to call John at his office. His secretary answered. “Good morning, sir; no, sir, the doctor isn’t in; no, sir, the doctor can’t call you back.” I asked why, what was wrong, why was John doing this to me, why didn’t John want to see me? The secretary was quiet for a few seconds and then said, “The doctor took a few days off, sir,” and she hung up on me.
That weekend I painted six more pictures of Korean heads split-ting open on the concrete, and Aníbal was very excited with the work. He said the “Korean thing” gave “a new feel to the whole series,” but I was boiling with fury and also still very sad. And then Aníbal, on the condition I wouldn’t abandon my “new wave of inspiration,” got me John’s home address and telephone number. I called immediately, and a Korean woman answered. I said I wanted to talk to John, and I repeated his name several times. The woman said something I didn’t understand, something short and fast. She repeated it. Then a man answered, some other Korean who wasn’t John, either, and he also said things that I didn’t understand.
So I made a decision, an important one. I wrapped the painting in the sheet, dragged it outside as best I could, waited for-ever until I caught one of those big taxis with enough room in back for the painting, and I gave the driver John’s address. John lived in a Korean world fifty blocks from my neighborhood, full of signs in Korean and of Koreans. The taxi driver asked me if I was sure about the address, and whether I wanted him to wait for me at the door. I told him that wasn’t necessary. I paid him and he helped me unload the painting. John’s house was old and big.
I leaned the painting against the entrance gate, rang the doorbell, waited. There are a lot of things that make me nervous. Not understanding something is one of the worst, and the other worst thing is waiting. But I waited. I think these are the things one does for one’s friends. I had talked to Mom a few days earlier and she’d said that my friendship with John suffered from a “cultural gap,” too, and that made everything more complicated. I told her that a cultural gap was a thing that John and I could fight. I just needed to talk to him, to find out why he was so angry.
The living room curtain moved. Someone looked out for a second from inside. A woman’s voice said “Hello” through the intercom. I said I wanted to see John. “John, no,” said the woman, “no.” She said other things in Korean, the intercom made some noises, and then everything went silent. I rang again. Waited again. Rang. I heard the bolts in the door, and a Korean man older than John opened it, looked at me, and said: “John, no.” He said it angrily, scowling, but without looking me in the eyes, and then shut the door again. I realized I didn’t feel well. Something was wrong in me, inside me, something was coming out of its place again, like in the old days. I rang the bell again. I yelled “John!” again, again.
A Korean man who was walking on the sidewalk across the street stopped to look. I yelled at the intercom again. I just wanted to talk to John. I yelled his name again. Because John was my friend. Because “gaps” didn’t have anything to do with us. Because we were two people, John and I, and that’s what having a friend is. I pressed the doorbell again, one long ring, and my finger hurt from pressing so hard. The Korean across the street said something in his language. I don’t know what, it was like he wanted to explain something to me. And me, again, “John, John,” really loud, like something terrible was happening to me. The Korean came over to me and made a hand gesture to calm me down. I took my hand from the doorbell to change fingers and kept shouting. I heard blinds fall in another house. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air. Like I didn’t have enough of some-thing.
Then the Korean, he touched my shoulder. His fingers on my shirt. And it was an enormous pain: the cultural gap. My body shook, it shook and I couldn’t control it, my body didn’t understand things anymore, like in the beginning, like other times. I let go of the painting, which fell facedown onto the sidewalk, and I grabbed the Korean by the hair. A small Korean, skinny and nosy. A shitty Korean who had gotten up at five in the morning for fifteen years to reinforce the cultural gap for eighteen hours a day. I held him by the hair so hard that my nails dug into the palm of my hand. And that was the third time I smashed someone’s head against the concrete.
When they ask me if “splitting open the Korean’s head on the back of my canvas hides an aesthetic intention,” I look up and pretend to think. That’s something I learned from watching other artists talk on TV. It’s not that I don’t understand the question, it’s just that I’m really not interested. I have legal problems, a lot of legal problems. Because I don’t know how to tell the difference between Koreans and Japanese, or Japanese and Chinese, and every time I see one of any of them, I grab him by the hair and start to slam his head against the concrete. Aníbal got me a good lawyer and he’s claiming “insanity,” which is when you’re crazy, and it’s much better in the eyes of the law. People say I’m racist, “a hugely evil” man, but my paintings sell for millions, and I’m starting to think about what my mom always said, which is that the problem with the world is that it’s in a great crisis of love. And also that, when it comes down to it, these are not good times for very sensitive people.