When Andres Neuman’s fourth novel, The Traveller of the Century was translated into English in 2012, it was clear that a writer of some significance had been made available to those of us who do not speak Spanish. It made the shortlists of both the IMPAC award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and was widely praised. Now those same translators, Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, have given us Talking to Ourselves, Neuman’s own follow up to Traveller, originally published in 2012. (Perhaps in time his earlier novels will be translated – a collection of short stories, Things We Don’t Do, will appear next in English). Talking to Ourselves is quite unlike Traveller – where Traveller is an baroque, historical epic, Talking to Ourselves is a much quieter, more intimate, contemporary novel. No doubt some readers may find this disappointing, but I found it both exciting and refreshing, a confirmation that Neuman was a talented writer intent on exploring his craft.
Talking to Ourselves is told in the alternating voices of three characters: a father (Mario), a mother (Elena) and a son (Lito). Quite quickly we discover that Mario is dying and has therefore decided that he and Lito should go on a journey together:
“Mario insisted he needed to go on a trip with his son at least once in his life. To take him in the truck, the way his father had done with him. I couldn’t refuse him that.”
Lito is ignorant of his father’s illness which lends their journey a layer of irony, for example when they decide to race to the toilet at one of their stops:
“I reach the door to the toilet. Me. First. For a moment I think Dad may have let me win. That always annoys me. This time it’s different. Because he’s actually ran and he’s all shaken up.”
(The short sentences are typical of Lito’s thoughts). Neuman, however, does not deploy this sentimentally. In fact, his main interest in the novel seems to be Elena and her response to her husband’s approaching death. Her first thoughts consider her own role in Mario’s story:
“A patient’s rights go unquestioned. No-one talks about the rights of the carer. Another person’s illness makes us ill.”
Elana is also the novel’s most interesting character: a school teacher who gave up university life (“Why did I lack the courage to pursue my academic career?”), her sections are presented as a diary rather than an interior monologue and are much more reflective. She frequently quotes writers, so much so that a list of sources appears at the novel’s end. Mario’s mortality has sparked off a crisis (we might unkindly call it a middle-aged crisis – she certainly refers to age in relation to it) in Elena, who begins an affair with Mario’s doctor, Ezequiel:
“I was going to say he drives me wild. But besides being cheesy, that would be inaccurate. It’s more like, with Ezequiel as a pretext, through his body, I had allowed myself to go wild. His healthy young body. Distant from death.”
Neuman conveys the intensity of the sadomasochistic relationship that develops convincingly, creating an unusual counterpoint to the road-trip. Interestingly, at no point did I find Elena an unsympathetic character, her obsessive lust seeming an understandable response to death.
Overall I found the novel to be a moving exploration of loss – not just the loss that occurs with death, but the loss related to the knowledge of approaching death. Talking to Ourselves might not have the scope or ambition of The Traveller of the Century, but it does convey the ambition of Neuman as a writer.