Posts Tagged ‘andres neuman’

Talking to Ourselves

July 15, 2014

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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.

Traveller of the Century

April 26, 2013

traveller of the century

Traveller of the Century is, in many ways, an unusual novel. At first it appears curiously old fashioned for the work of a young Argentinian: set in Germany in the early nineteenth century, it begins with a young man, Hans, a translator by profession, arriving in the town of Wandernburg. Presumably the town’s name (it is not a real place) is meant to echo Han’s wanderings, though the town itself seems to have a propensity to wander, its streets and landmarks never being in quite the same place. Hans presents himself as an inveterate traveller:

“I think that in order to know where we want to be we have to travel to other places.”

The irony is that he arrives in Wandernburg at the beginning of the novel and remains there throughout – and at 600 pages, that is a lengthy ‘throughout’, again suggesting a pastiche of the 19th century novel. Though love is eventually to blame for his stay, initially he is delayed simply by an inexplicable indecision – but he is not alone:

“Travellers come here, people who have lost their way or were headed somewhere else, lone wolves. And they always end up staying here.”

Neuman includes a couple of trusted plots, in particular a love triangle in which Hans falls for a young woman, Sophie, whose father he meets. Sophie, unfortunately, is engaged to the local landowner and soon to be married. There is also a whodunit as a masked killer stalks the streets attacking women. The novel is not, however, plot driven – take, for example, Hans relationship with an old organ grinder whom he befriends, frequently spending his evenings at the cave on the outskirts of town that the organ grinder calls home. Similarly, his friendship with a Spanish merchant who has become equally at home in the German town does little to advance the story. Above all, consider the extensive scenes set during Sophie’s salons as art, history and philosophy are discussed at length. Neuman makes his intentions clear during one of these discussions:

“I believe the past should not be a distraction, but a laboratory in which to analyse the present.”

It is in sustaining the reader’s interest during these many abstract conversations that Neuman shows his skill as a writer, and demonstrates that what at first seems a strangely old fashioned story is in fact channelled directly from the present (take for example a discussion about a single European market and how much political union this would involve). It is not accident that the novel takes place in the shadow of the failure of the French Revolution, just as we now live in shadow of the failure of the Russian Revolution. (For many South American countries, of course, that sense of defeated radicalism is even more recent).

In other words, Traveller of the Century is an intellectual book, but one that wears its intellect lightly. Yes, Hans and Sophie discuss translation at length, but they reinvigorate themselves with bouts of surprisingly contemporary sex. Who said ideas were boring?