In Samanta Schweblin’s latest book, Little Eyes, characters occasionally ask point-blank, “What is this book about?” The answer is easy enough to grasp at; the novel is about a world obsessed with a gadget called the “kentuki,” the robot you might get if you mixed Amazon Alexa with a Furby, sprinkling in some inspiration from anonymous chat websites like Omegle.
Schweblin’s kentukis are different from your average household technology in one major way, however: with these robots, you don’t have to be paranoid about a potential lapse in privacy. You know for a fact that there’s someone on the other side of your robot, watching and listening to everything you’re doing in real time. Actually, somehow, that’s the whole appeal of it!
The book follows a handful of human characters and their relationships to these robots. Some are “dwellers,” using their computers to control the kentuki they were randomly assigned, watching and attending to their keeper who could live anywhere on the globe. The “keepers” have gone out and bought these toys, shelling out almost $300 for a stuffed crow, bunny, dragon or mole that is marketed as a cute companion, but essentially exists to be a surveillance device.
The novel lays out a convincing case for why one would want to inhabit a kentuki. Marvin, one of the novel’s most endearing characters, is a young man living in Antigua, Guatemala. At the beginning of the book, he buys a kentuki connection that allows him to virtually embody a dragon that lives in Norway. He sees it as an escape from his life in Guatemala, where his mother has died, his father is always on him about something, and he’s behind in school. At first, Marvin is just excited to see snow through the eyes of his dragon – he’s never seen it before. As time passes, Marvin grows increasingly – alarmingly – attached to his form as a kentuki.
Another dweller, Grigor in Croatia, sees money in selling ideal kentuki connections to people who’d rather not be surprised by where they end up. He sees embodying a robot as a way to be a virtual tourist, to live somewhere else from the comfort of your own home.
“There were people willing to shell out a fortune so they could spend a few hours a day living in poverty, and there were people who paid to be tourists without leaving their houses: to travel through India without a single day of diarrhea, or to witness the arctic winter barefoot and in pajamas,” goes Grigor’s marketing pitch.
That’s all reasonable, though I wonder if people could quench their travel bugs just the same by zooming around on Google Earth. Perhaps there is some added weight to being tethered to a physical object that someone else bought and is relying on.
That brings us to the kentuki keepers, though, whose existence is a lot harder to understand. At one point toward the middle of the novel, one of the “keeper” characters, Alina, is trying to explain the phenomenon to her mother.
“It’s a cell phone with legs, mom,” Alina says of her kentuki, a crow she named Colonel Sanders.
“And what are you supposed to do with it, then?” her mother asks. Alina can’t answer, because she doesn’t know.
Another one of the keepers, Enzo, initially bought his kentuki mole, “Mister,” for his son, upon the recommendations of his ex-wife and their psychiatrist. But his son, Luca, ends up hating the robot, and Enzo takes a strong liking to it, refusing to give it up even after his wife tells him that she doesn’t want the mole around their child anymore. It’s dangerous, she decides.
It’s not clear why the keepers like their kentukis. They don’t really help them with anything, like playing music or setting alarms. They can’t talk, so if the keeper and the dweller end up finding a way to communicate with each other as human beings, as the relationships often go, they have to move to a different platform to do it. Unless you are an exhibitionist who is more than completely laissez-faire about giving a complete stranger visual and aural access to your home, Schweblin doesn’t give any reason for you wanting to own a kentuki at all.
Of course, we all know that we’re being watched, with Facebook ads and algorithms that read our minds, telling us what we want before we’ve fully acknowledged that we want it. But unlike in real life, in Little Eyes, no larger system benefits from the kentukis’ inherent breach of privacy, and the individual in possession of the robot doesn’t receive even the illusion of authentic benefit from it.
Schweblin’s series of vignettes, originally published in Spanish in 2018 as simply Kentukis, is fascinating as a character study, and the novel’s subplots can be deliciously weird and thought-provoking. But Schweblin openly ponders the meaning of her own book too often for readers to ignore the holes, and as the book fizzles to an ending, its related subplots still unconnected, we’re left unsatisfied.