26 November 10 | Chad W. Post

As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 18 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.

Today: Argentine novelist Andres Neuman, whose new short story “After Helena,” translated by Richard Gwyn, is included in this issue.



One of the running themes that’s developed over the past few days of this series is just how young these authors are. I’ve complained to friends and interns about how, for me, this issue literally marks the transition between “young with promise” and “not-so-young and no more excuses.” Based on Granta‘s criteria, this would be the last year that I could personally qualify for one of their “Young X of Y” issue. (If I were a writer, if I were talented, etc., etc., I know, I know.) And it has been pretty mind-blowing going through these writers one-by-one, realizing just how much they’ve accomplished at such a young age.

What this really underscores is how out of touch I am (we are?) with what’s really going on in contemporary writing around the world. I can only imagine how many articles would be written about an American author who’s done as much, and received as many awards at such a young age as Neuman has.

At the age of 22, Neuman published his first novel, Bariloche, following which he published three more novels, including El viajero del siglo (more on that below), which won the Alfaguara Prize and the Critics’ Prize in Spain. He’s also published three short story collections, and a collection of aphorisms. Not to mention, he also published Como viajar sin ver, a travel book, and his collected poems, which received the Hiperion Prize for Poetry. Ten books and two major awards in 11 years. And he was named to the Bogata 39. Not bad. Not bad at all. (Oh to have all those wasted hours back . . . although I’m sure I’d just waste them all again.)

“After Helena” is a pretty touching story of a man who, in the wake of the death of his love makes two decisions:

One stagnant evening as I was going over my list of contacts in search of some name that it might please me to utter, I took two simultaneous decisions: to take up smoking and to announce to my enemies that I forgave them. Burning cigarettes was an attempt to prove to myself that, although Helena was no longer there, I was
still alive. To show to myself that I could survive each and every cigarette. As for my enemies, there was no plan. It was not done out of goodness. I perceived it as something inevitable, preordained. I simply saw the names Melchor, Ariel, Rubén and Nuria in my diary. At first I tried to drop the idea. But, with each match that I lit (I have always preferred the slowness of matches to the immediacy of lighters), I was thinking: Melchor, Ariel, Rubén, Nuria.

It’s a touching, sweet story, that’s at its best when Neuman is describing his four various enemies and why they are enemies. That’s all great, but to be honest, the book I’m most curious about is El viajero del siglo, the Alfaguara Prize winning novel that’s being translated into English and will be published by Pushkin Press. Here’s the description from Neuman’s website:

An unpleasant night. A mysterious traveller. A small maze-like city where getting one’s bearings seems impossible. Just when the traveller is about to flee, a strange character stops him, changing his destiny forever. The rest is love and literature: an unexpected, unforgettable romance and a narrative world that, as it unfolds, condenses to a smaller scale the history of the modern West.

Traveller of the century is an ambitious experiment: it invites us to look at the 19th Century with 21th-Century eyes. A novel that recovers the inspiration of classic narrative, written from a contemporary approach. A post-modern reading of Romanticism, set in post-Napoleonic times, in an imaginary city of Germany. A dialogue between the Europe of the Restoration and the political plans of the European Union. A narrative bridge spanning the past and the global problems of our present: inmigration, multiculturalism, nationalisms, emancipation of women.

The book represents a large cultural mosaic in the service of an intense plot, one concerned primarily with the transformative power of love. An exceptional, funny, mature novel from a writer wise beyond his years. Five hundred pages that the reader will not be able to put down for even a moment.

And as a special treat for all Spanish readers out there, here’s an excerpt from the opening (also from Andres’s website, since the fricking PDF version of this I have is tagged with some sort of voodoo security that prevents me from even copying a paragraph . . . ):

¿Tie-ne frí-o-o?, gritó el cochero con la voz entrecortada por los saltos del carruaje. ¡Voy bie-e-en, gra-cias!, contestó Hans tiritando.

Los faroles se desenfocaban al ritmo del galope. Las ruedas escupían barro. A punto de partirse, los ejes se torcían en cada bache. Los caballos inflaban las mandíbulas y soltaban nubes por la boca. Sobre la línea del horizonte rodaba una luna opaca.

Hacía rato que Wandernburgo se dibujaba a lo lejos, al sur del camino. Pero, pensó Hans, como suele pasar al final de una jornada agotadora, aquella pequeña ciudad parecía desplazarse con ellos. Encima de la cabina el cielo pesaba. Con cada latigazo del cochero el frío se envalentonaba y oprimía el contorno de las cosas. ¿Fal-ta-a mu-cho?, preguntó Hans asomando la cabeza por la ventanilla. Tuvo que repetir dos veces la pregunta para que el cochero saliera de su ruidosa atención y, señalando con la fusta, exclamase: ¡Ya-a lo ve us-te-e-ed! Hans no supo si eso significaba que faltaban pocos minutos o que nunca se sabía. Como era el último pasajero y no tenía con quién hablar, cerró los ojos.

Cuando volvió a abrirlos, vio una muralla de piedra y una puerta abovedada. A medida que se acercaban Hans percibió algo anómalo en la robustez de la muralla, una especie de advertencia sobre la dificultad de salir, más que de entrar. A la luz ahogada de las farolas divisó las siluetas de los primeros edificios, las escamas de unos tejados, torres afiladas, ornamentos como vértebras. Tuvo la sensación de ingresar en un lugar recién desalojado, de que los golpes de los cascos y las sacudidas de las ruedas sobre los adoquines producían demasiado eco. Todo estaba tan quieto que parecía que alguien los espiaba conteniendo la respiración. El carruaje giró en una esquina, el sonido del galope se ensordeció: ahora el suelo era de tierra. Atravesaron la calle del Caldero Viejo. Hans divisó un letrero de hierro balanceándose. Le indicó al cochero que parase.

El cochero descendió del pescante y al pisar tierra pareció desconcertado. Dio dos o tres pasos, se miró los pies, sonrió con extravío. Acarició el lomo del primer caballo, le susurró unas palabras de gratitud a las que el animal replicó resoplando. Hans lo ayudó a desatar las cuerdas de la baca, a retirar la lona mojada, a bajar su maleta y un gran arcón con manijas. ¿Qué lleva aquí, un muerto?, se quejó el cochero dejando caer el arcón y frotándose las manos. Un muerto no, sonrió Hans, unos cuantos. (…)

Fue al quedarse solo con su equipaje frente a la posada cuando notó aguijones en la espalda, un vaivén en los músculos, un zumbido en las sienes. Conservaba la sensación del traqueteo, las luces seguían pareciendo parpadeantes, las piedras movedizas. Hans se frotó los ojos. Las ventanas empañadas no dejaban ver el interior de la posada. Llamó a la puerta, de la que aún colgaba una corona navideña. Nadie acudió. Probó el picaporte helado. La puerta cedió a empujones. Divisó un pasillo alumbrado con candiles de aceite que pendían de un garfio. Sintió el beneficio cálido del interior. Al fondo del pasillo se oía un alborotar de chispas. Hans arrastró con esfuerzo la maleta y el arcón dentro de la posada. Permaneció debajo de un candil, intentando recobrar la temperatura. Se sobresaltó al reparar en el señor Zeit, que lo miraba tras el mostrador de la recepción. Iba a ir a abrirle, dijo. El posadero se movió con extrema lentitud, como si se hubiera quedado atrapado entre el mostrador y la pared. Tenía una barriga en forma de tambor. Olía a tela viciada. ¿De dónde viene usted?, preguntó. Ahora vengo de Berlín, dijo Hans, aunque eso en realidad no importa. A mí sí me importa, caballero, lo interrumpió el señor Zeit sin sospechar que Hans se refería a otra cosa, ¿y cuántas noches piensa quedarse? Supongo que una, dijo Hans, no estoy seguro. Cuando lo sepa, contestó el posadero, por favor comuníquemelo, necesitamos saber qué habitaciones van a estar disponibles.

El señor Zeit buscó un candelabro. Condujo a Hans a través del pasillo, después por unas escaleras. Hans miraba su figura oronda escalando cada peldaño. Temió que se le viniera encima. Toda la posada olía a aceite quemándose, al azufre de las mechas, a jabón y sudor mezclados. Pasaron la primera planta y siguieron subiendo. A Hans le extrañó observar que las habitaciones parecían desocupadas. Al llegar a la segunda planta, el posadero se detuvo frente a una puerta con un número siete escrito en tiza. Recuperando el aliento, aclaró con orgullo: La siete es la mejor. Sacó de un bolsillo un aro, un aro sufrido, cargado de llaves, y tras varios intentos y maldiciones en voz baja, entraron en la habitación.

Candelabro en mano, el posadero fue haciendo un surco en la oscuridad hasta llegar a la ventana. Al abrir los postigos, la ventana emitió un acorde de maderas y polvo. La luz de la calle era tan débil que, más que alumbrar la habitación, se sumó a la penumbra como un gas. (…)

Boca arriba en el catre, Hans tanteó la aspereza de las sábanas con la punta de los pies. Al entornar los párpados, le pareció escuchar rasguños bajo las tablas del suelo. Mientras el sopor lo envolvía y todo dejaba de importarle, se dijo: Mañana junto mis cosas y me voy a otro sitio. Si se hubiera acercado al techo con una vela, habría descubierto las grandes telarañas de las vigas. Entre las telarañas un insecto asistió al sueño de Hans, hilo por hilo.

See you next week!


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