Talking to Ourselves
If you somehow managed to overlook the 2012 translation of Andrés Neuman’s breathtaking Traveler of the Century (and woe betide all whom continue to do so), you now have two exceptional works of fiction from the young Argentine virtuoso demanding your immediate attention.
Accolades aplenty have been piling up for Neuman since publishing his first novel (the as-yet untranslated Bariloche) at the age of 22: he was named to the illustrious Bogotá 39 list of outstanding young Latin American authors (sharing company with the likes of Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Eduardo Halfón, Santiago Roncagliolo, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Jorge Volpi, among others) and has been awarded both the Alfaguara and Spain’s National Critics prizes—and was twice a finalist for the Herralde Prize. Prestigious honors celebrating an already prodigious output—Neuman has authored some twenty works, including five novels, five books of short stories, nine collections of poetry (not including the volume that assembles a decade’s worth), a selection of aphorisms and literary essays, and a travel book about Latin America. Oh, and he translates poetry into Spanish. And writes a regular column. And maintains a very popular literary blog (which, unsurprisingly by now, was named one of the best in Spanish by an El cultural survey). All of this and yet he’s still a few years shy of his 40th birthday.
Roberto Bolaño, always the veritable critic, arbiter, and champion of literary prowess, in an essay entitled “Neuman, Touched by Grace” (collected in Between Parentheses), offered the following non-hyperbolic sentiment:
Among young writers who’ve already published a first book, Neuman may be the youngest of all, and his precocity, which comes studded with lightning bolts and proclamations, isn’t his greatest virtue. born in argentina in 1977, but raised in andalusia, andrés neuman is the author of a book of poems, Métodos de la noche Night Methods, published by Hiperión in 1998, and Bariloche, an excellent first novel that was a finalist for the most recent Herralde Prize.
The novel is about a trash collector in Buenos Aires who works jigsaw puzzles in his spare time. I happened to be on the prize committee and Neuman’s novel at once enthralled—to use an early twentieth-century term—and hypnotized me. In it, good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.
Talking to Ourselves (_Hablar solos), the second of Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation—be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century was an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging german towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.
I wonder whether, perhaps without realizing it, we seek out the books we need to read. Or whether books themselves, which are intelligent entities, detect their readers and catch their eye. In the end, every book is the I Ching. you pick it up, open it and there it is, there you are.
Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can—longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution.
“There’s a lot of horribleness [she] refuses to countenance,” I agree with what Helen Garner writes in one of her novels, “but it won’t just go away.” In fact the job of horror is to do the opposite: to resurface. “So somebody else has to sort of live it.” By avoiding the subject of death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little. “Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose.” And feeds it. “It drives madness into the soul.” Like one truck driving into another. “It leaches out virtue.” Leaves it barren. “And makes a mockery of love.” And there are no more clean embraces. Here all of us fall ill.
Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort. Alternating between Lito, Elena, and Mario, Neuman captures the distinction and nuance of these individual voices—inhabiting their inner worlds (in one form or another) to reveal fears, hopes, misgivings, doubts, and longings. Not only is each respective chapter told from the viewpoint of one of the three—each is also conveyed in a different format altogether: Lito’s excitable, curious, and impatient stream-of-thought expression befitting a 10-year old, Elena’s ongoing and forthright diary compositions, and Mario’s series of tape recordings to be left behind for Lito after his passing. Neuman’s stylistic choice works to magnificent effect (however arduous a task it must have been to pull off), as he easily transitions between voices and forms to reveal the thoughts and feelings that seem to so overwhelm each character, despite their inability to share openly with one another.
We all live in an ellipsis.
While missing her husband and son terribly (and worrying incessantly about their well-being), Elena, per the fragility of her immediate existence, allows herself to be courted by Mario’s doctor—an affair that first excites, but later disgusts. As she records her daily interactions within her journal, she also discovers parallels within the books she reads (which include, it must be mentioned, the likes of César Aira, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Roberto Bolaño, Anton Chekhov, Richard Ford, Javier Marías, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’connor, Kenzaburō Ōe, Cynthia Ozick, Virginia Woolf, and others), excerpting them in her diary as if to corroborate her own interior state—or, at the least, to help make sense of its ceaseless tumult.
Work, work. That’s all I know how to do. You have to be very sad to hate vacations. You are so responsible, people tell me. They can go to hell. I look for things to be responsible for because I can’t be responsible for myself. Sometimes I think I don’t deserve to be a mother. Sometimes I think I had a child in order to stop myself from jumping out of the window. Sometimes I think I should have been the one who got ill. Sometimes I think about being fucked hard. Women who know what they want never want anything interesting.
Foolish it would be for the reader to look for answers pertaining to the existential dilemmas of life and love. Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito)—but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.
When I see a couple kissing, believing they love one another, believing they will endure, whispering into each other’s ear in the name of an instinct to which they give lofty names, when I see them caressing one another with that embarrassing avidness, that expectation of discovering something crucial in the other’s skin, when I see their mouths becoming entangled, the exchange of tongues, their freshly showered hair, their unruly hands, fabric rubbing and lifting up the like the most sordid of curtains, the anxious tic of knees bouncing like springs, cheap beds in one-night hotels they will later remember as palaces, when I see two fools expressing their desire with impunity in broad daylight, as though I weren’t watching them, it’s not merely envy I feel. I also pity them. I pity their rotten future. And I get up and ask for the bill and I smile at them askance, as though I had returned from a war which the two of them have no idea is about to commence.
With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.
Short of the inebriated automobiler who Bolaño feared might one day rob us of his wordsmithing savvy, the literature of our adolescent century may well indeed belong to Andrés Neuman (as well as Gonçalo Tavares, assuredly).
Enjoy life, do you hear?, It’s hard work enjoying life, and have patience, not too much, and look after yourself as if you knew you won’t always be young, even though you won’t know it and that’s okay, and have plenty of sex, son, do it for your sake and mine and even your mother’s, lots of sex, and if you have children, have them late, and go to the beach in winter, in winter it’s better, you’ll see, my head hurts yet I feel good, it’s hard to explain, and go traveling on your own once in a while, and try not to fall in love all the time, and care about your looks, do you hear me?, men who don’t care about their looks are afraid of being queer, and if you are queer, be a man, in short, advice isn’t much use, if you disagree with it you don’t listen, and if you already agree you don’t need it, never trust advice, son, travel agents advise you to go places they’ve never been, you’ll love more when you’re old, I thought of my father the moment we got down from that truck, our true love for our parents is posthumous, forgive me for that, I’m already proud of the things you’re going to do, I love the way you count the time on your fingers when you set the alarm clock, or do you think I don’t see?, you do it secretly, under the covers, so I won’t know you have difficulty working it out, I’m going to ask you a favor, whatever happens, whatever age you are, don’t stop counting the time on your fingers, promise me, octopus.