Books and Grief: Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman

A recent addition to the Landing Bookshelves has been Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves (courtesy of the publishers, Pushkin Press). It has, I admit jumped the queue over longer residents of the TBR Pile but I hope you’ll let that pass. I became acquainted with Neuman’s work a couple of years ago when I read Traveller of the Century. This was Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English and I was delighted to discover that it has been voted onto this year’s IMPAC short list. If you haven’t come across it yet then skim back to last year’s post on Neuman’s book. He also did a brilliant Q and A for The Landing.

Talking to Ourselves

An emotional landscape…

Talking to Ourselves is a spare and compact novel; quite a contrast to the previous book’s Enlightenment wanderings, but it describes a journey nonetheless. Or rather, it describes the emotional and spiritual journeys of the protagonists as well as a physical one. Three people alternately narrate Talking to Ourselves: Mario, his wife Elena and their ten-year-old son Lito. Mario is terminally ill and his wife has agreed that he can take Lito on a road trip in a truck (called Pedro) to create a special father-son memory. Lito is thrilled to be going on the trip and does not realise that his father is so ill. He thinks that Mario has just had a virus infection, as Mario has been careful to keep his illness hidden from his son. Whether that was the right thing to do or not is a question that Mario cannot answer.

Neuman’s powerful book tackles the difficult topics of loss, grief, loneliness and aging. This sounds depressing, but it’s not; moving and thought provoking are nearer the mark. Communication, sex and books are the weapons that the adults try to use to reclaim life and self from sadness and loss. Lito’s joyful thoughts at being on the road trip provide a sharp contrast to his parents’ concerns. Watching as someone you love suffers and changes is hard for the carer to deal with, and Elena struggles with her feelings. She has always been able to find solace and answers in reading. The book is peppered with quotations from the eclectic range of writers that she explores and Neuman has included a list of the authors cited at the end of the novel. This could feel very forced and clunky, a self-help manual for grief, but in Neuman’s skilled hands this technique works well.

At times, I had to stop reading Ourselves because of the intensity of the plot, so even though it’s only a short novel (156 pages) it took longer to read than I expected. Life can throw harrowing things at us that simply we don’t want to or feel able to face. This novel describes a couple trying to find ways of facing the one thing that any parent of a young child dreads. How do you deal with grief and the way illness affects everyone? How does this affect the moral compass of the healthy person? And is there a viable future? I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot so I’m just going to give a snippet from each of the protagonists to give a flavour of the novel.

Here is Lito just before his adventure with his father and Pedro begins,

I ask Dad when we’re leaving. Right now, he says. Right now! I can’t believe it. I run up to my room. I open and close drawers. I drop my clothes on the floor. Mum helps me pack my backpack. This is going to be awesome.’ Lito sees the trip as a huge excitement and relishes the chance to miss out eating salads in favour of junk food.

Elena is anxious about the trip but has no choice about it, knowing how important it is to Mario,

If Mario accepted the limits of his strength, we would have told all our friends the truth. He prefers us to be secretive. Discreet, he calls it. A patient’s rights go unquestioned. No one talks about the rights of the carer. Another person’s illness makes us ill. And I’m in that truck with them, even though I’ve stayed at home.’

As I said above Mario has refused to publicly acknowledge his illness which has ramifications for both Elena and Lito:

‘I’ll explain, bah, can I explain this?, you’re at your grandparents’ and you don’t know why, we’ve sent you there until the end of the holidays, I’m meant to be travelling, we talk every day, I try to sound cheerful, am I deceiving you, son? yes, I’m deceiving you, am I doing the right thing?, I’ve no idea, so let’s assume I am’.

I hope that I’ve managed to convey at least a small sense of the power and scope of this beautifully written and challenging novel. The translators have played no small part in this achievement: Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia who also translated Traveller of the Century have again done an excellent job. As someone whose ‘O’ level Spanish is very rusty indeed I’m constantly amazed at the skill translators apply to original texts, making the resulting words flow as if they were in the author’s native language.

Fingers crossed for Traveller of the Century in the IMPAC contest (one of five translated novels on the shortlist). I’ll be back with another Landing Bookshelves selection soon but meanwhile, drop me a line if you have any IMPAC recommendations.

Credits: Thanks again to Pushkin Press for a copy of the novel.

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An Enlightening Journey with Landing Author Andrés Neuman

After my Q and A with Argentinian/Spanish writer Andrés Neuman here is my piece on his novel Traveller of the Century. At a hefty 584 densely packed pages it is a book that cries out for the luxury of a few hours solid reading time. As I found that to be impossible, I have followed the characters in fits and starts. Thankfully, the engrossing themes and threads of the novel guided me through the drama. When I first got my hands on Neuman’s first novel in translation and read Roberto Bolaño’s effusive praise in the introduction, I felt somewhat ambivalent about tackling the book. I am not much given to hyperbole so I find it rather hard to swallow in others. Bolaño claims that ‘the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few other blood brothers of his’; (very gender specific; no blood sisters then?). Therefore, it was with some scepticism and a certain amount of trepidation that I began to read the novel. After I had finished reading, I felt that there had been so much going on in the novel that I would pull out a few themes and images that particularly struck me, to highlight here.

Cover of Traveller of the Century with silhouette of town

Traveller of the Century

Traveller of the century is set in nineteenth century Germany, after the European upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars. When the story opens, Hans, a translator and compulsive traveller is in a coach creaking its way through a bleak winter landscape.  Late at night, he plans to break his journey to Dessau in the town of Wandernburg and finds lodging in a rather shabby looking inn. As the story unfolds Hans, who never stays anywhere for very long, finds himself unable to leave. This is in part because of the strange qualities of the town and in part due to his increasing entanglement with the lives of the people he meets in Wandernburg.

A silken thread running through Traveller is the seeming ability of the geography of the town to shift around, almost as if the town itself does not want people to leave. In trying to find places that, he had found the previous day, ‘Hans had the strange feeling that the city’s layout somehow shifted while everyone was asleep’. He finds the market square to be the only location easy to pinpoint. This sense you get of the changing aspect of the town is unsettling and suggests unseen and unknown forces below the surface. Is it coincidence that Hans only gets to grips with the town’s geography when he is about to leave? Does he imagine this is happening; or is the town really playing with his perceptions?

Hans befriends a poor old organ grinder who usually plays in the town’s market square. As they become friendly, the organ grinder invites Hans to his home that turns out to be a cave just outside the town, where he lives with only his dog Franz for company. Hans starts to spend evenings at the cave talking to the organ grinder and two local workers Reichardt and Lamberg. There is much animated debate, discussion and cheap wine drinking carried on late into the night. One of the topics that the men discuss is the town itself; as a place to leave or to remain in. The organ grinder (who goes by no other name) is devoted to his town and sees beauty in the changing seasons of his home. The imagery of the men passionately talking and arguing into the early hours is very vivid and is a piquant contrast to Han’s elegant evenings with the town’s bourgeoisie.

Hans meets Sophie Gottlieb, a merchant’s daughter who is engaged to a local wealthy landowner, Rudi Wilderhaus. The philosophical discussions at the cave are mirrored by the Friday night Salons held at the Gottlieb house where the more socially elevated group debates the poetry, philosophy, history and literature of Germany and her neighbours. Hans is often in conflict with the hitherto leading light of the group, Professor Meitter though he finds a kindred spirit in Álvaro a Spanish merchant settled in Wandernburg. The Enlightenment is gradually gaining ground in this corner of Germany, even though the town seems otherwise rather set in its ways.

At the heart of Traveller of the Century is the illicit love affair between Sophie and Hans. Their relationship plays out against the background of often-intense discussions between the members of the two overlapping groups of debaters. Hans and later, Álvaro are equally at home in the two very different settings and Sophie is charmed by the organ grinder and his cave when Hans takes her to visit there. Apart from these encounters and the love affair between Álvaro and Sophie’s maid Elsa, the townsfolk stay in their allotted rigid social places. Enlightenment is also reaching Wandernburg’s women, as Sophie declares that ‘I for one don’t intend to spend my days with flour up to my elbows’. In tandem with discussing poetry and politics with Sophie, Hans is teaching the innkeepers daughter Lisa to read.

Translation is perhaps not surprisingly another recurring theme in Neuman’s book (see the Q&A for Neuman’s thoughts on translation of his own work). There is much discussion of language and nationality in the Friday salon and translation is also the means by which Hans earns his living. Translation becomes the means to enable Sophie and Hans’ affair to continue, as they begin to work together on Hans’ commissions. They in effect translate each other while they discuss the literature they are working on. The process of selecting the right words to use and then reading aloud their differing versions functions as a delicious foreplay, heightening their desire for one another.

There is a darker thread running through the drama, in the figure of the cloaked rapist who haunts the darker side streets of the city. I do not want to spoil the plot by mentioning the identity of the attacker. Suffice to say that the shadowy figure seems to be the antithesis of progress and enlightenment in Wandernburg. The police attempt to track the culprit by employing the appropriate rational means and careful reasoning. However, at one point Hans runs afoul of the local police and discovers that the law is not by any means as rational as it could be.

I hope I have succeeded in doing justice to a fascinating novel, that I am certain to read again. And was Bolaño right in his estimation of Traveller of the Century? Read it and judge for yourself!

Landing Author Andrés Neuman: Q and A

profile view of Andres Neuman

Andrés Neuman

As promised, here are the results of my #LandingAuthor interview with author of Traveller of the Century Andrés Neuman:

CM: You have been featured on the list of Granta‘s Best Young Spanish language novelists and on the Bogotá 39 list. Do you feel that these lists achieve the result of bringing writers to the attention of a wider public and if so, has it benefited you in that way? 

AN: Well, there are so many lists around, that sometimes I think that the most effective one would be a list of never-listed authors. More seriously (or not), to be honest I don’t know the practical results of those two lists. Nevertheless, each one of them had a very interesting nuance in terms of literary theory. Granta’s one represented, if I’m not wrong, the very first time that such an influential Anglophone publication was fully dedicated to non-English language authors. Which was quite a hopeful sign I guess. Regarding Bogotá 39 list, when it came out I realized that at least half of the writers included on it hadn’t lived in their born countries for a long time, so that they already had a kind of mixed national identity; and two of them (Daniel Alarcón and Junot Díaz) didn’t even write in Spanish language, so they were twice peripheral. I feel quite close to these alternative ways of looking at the Latin American tradition, since I was born in an Argentine home but I grew up in Spain.

 

CM: Following on from the Bogotá 39 list, with which the Hay Festival was involved, I would like to ask you about participation in literary festivals. Do you enjoy doing festivals and meeting readers and fellow writers or do you perhaps feel obliged to make appearances? 

AN: Maybe both. On one hand, anything which implies leaving home painfully stops or at least delays the book you were working on. On the other hand, thanks to the festivals and book fairs you get to know two essential, yet often invisible for you, parts of your vocation: readers and colleagues. Most of the time you work alone, so when a reader appears you feel genuinely amazed: so they really existed! And they even had the patience of reading one of your books! When that happens, I’d like to apologize or returning them their money. In the end, I tend to think that travelling is literary healthy. Travels remind you that the world was much more complex than you thought. And that’s what literature is about, isn’t it?

 

 CM: You have written a book based upon your travels around South America, your own back yard as it were, but do you have an urge to explore any other places with a view to writing and if so, where would you like to go?

AN: That book (Cómo viajar sin ver. Latinoamérica en tránsito/ How to travel without seeing. Latin America in transit) actually tells a trip across the whole Latin America, which is an immense planet itself. It’s an amazing experience to feel a foreign person twenty times, without changing of language. That’s a little miracle that Spanish language allows us. Where else I’d like to go to and write about? I’d prefer not to plan it: I enjoy much more when a place takes me by surprise. Precisely that surprise is what stimulates the muscle of attention.

 

 CM: After having lived in both Spain and Argentina do you feel that you have a leaning towards the literature of one country more than the other?

AN: That’s a puzzling conflict which I have never got to solve. I have the inclination to look at Europe from a Latin American perspective, whereas when I’m in Argentina I often put myself in a Spaniard point of view. In fact, Argentine people usually ask me about Spain, and vice versa. So I’ve ended up assuming that’s my natural place: a sort of border between both countries or continents. I have a double citizenship and a double foreignness as well.

 

 CM: As a book hoarder myself, I was much struck by your account of your parents’ house clearance in which the books were piled up to be measured by the dealer. How attached are you to your books now? Do you keep everything you buy or have a purge every now and then?

AN: When my family left Argentina and we had to sell quickly almost everything we had (even the toys of my whole childhood, which was a painful thing to do at that time), I learned that collecting things is much less important than remembering them deeply –and telling them under the form of stories. I’m not too fond of collecting things now. I really don’t mind to drop or give any kind of stuff. But I must confess that I hate to lose (an even to lend, what a sin!) the books I have already read. I usually underline and take notes on them, so perhaps the only things I’d save from a sinking would be my read books -and my laptop. Will e-books eventually change our fetishistic attitude towards printed objects? Who knows. Maybe. I’ve got a kindle and I love it. Though I wouldn’t trust monster enterprises like Google, Amazon, Apple or Microsoft as the exclusive guardians of our memories.

 

 CM: I am interested in how it feels to have your work translated. No matter how good the translator, it must be somewhat dislocating to see your words rendered by him/her into another language. Can you talk about that a little?

AN: You’re right. Dislocating. And revealing too. I do feel that foreign languages teach you a lot about your mother tongue. Maybe that’s poetry about: looking at your mother tongue as it was a foreign one. That’s why I enjoy so much the whole translation process, both as a translator or as the translated one. Translators need to suspect of every single word, just as poets do. So, when your book is translated, you learn unforeseen meanings on it. As if the author wasn’t you. And actually you’re not. What translators do is not only transferring your own words into a different language. But radically transforming their connotations and nuances, often for good. Good translators (just like good mistakes!) are able to enhance the original intention. That’s why I don’t expect my translators to respect me too much: I rather to be shamelessly invaded by them.

 

cartoon drawing of Andres Neuman

Andrés Neuman

CM: I was looking at your blog and Facebook pages and I was wondering whether you have willingly embraced the social media platforms that so many writers use to promote their work, or whether you have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the computer to engage with your virtual friends?

 AN:Interestingly, my personal blog and Facebook page are two very different, if not opposite, cases. The blog Microrréplicas  is entirely written and updated by me. I consider it just another part of my literary work, indeed not below the books. Whereas the FB profile was actually opened, and is still ruled, by a nice group of readers. They are the only ones who decide what to put on it, and when and how. I think that’s fair. Personal contact with readers can be really great, and sometimes deeply moving. But I guess that keep always interacting online can also be tricky for a writer, since a good book needs quite a lot of solitude and time to be written. And its feed-back is much more a long-term one. So maybe the most respectful thing that writers can do for those wonderful virtual friends is, precisely, to dedicate most of their time to work hard on their books. Which will be hopefully read, discussed, loved or hated on social networks.

 

CM: And finally….. I have based my blog content on tackling the unread books lurking on my bookshelves. Do you have a ‘TBR Pile’ and if so, what is on it?

AN: Oh, that’s my favourite wet dream: to read everything I haven’t read yet. I have no just one, but several ‘to be read’ piles everywhere at home. The most interesting pile is, of course, the bathroom one: the only place in which nothing can seriously interrupt our reading. What’s on that pile right now? Let’s see: a biography of Chéjov written by my beloved Natalia Ginzburg, the first volume of Philip K. Dick complete short stories, Houellebecq’s new novel, Pierre Michon’s penultimate, an anthology of Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, several young Argentine novelists, a very good half-read book of stories by James Lasdun, a collection of fragments by wonderful Spaniard philosopher María Zambrano, last Julian Barnes’ book, a manual of compared mythology (what the hell is doing that here?), a travel book about Italy by Stendhal, a political essay by Cameroon activist Achile Mbembe titled Necropolitics, an anthology of contemporary Welsh poets (recently found in Cardiff), a couple of comics, some old and crumpled and dirty newspapers… If I resurrected, I’d dedicate that extra life exclusively to pending books. I promise. Well, I don’t. Will there be a bathroom after death?

Many thanks to Andrés Neuman for taking the time to answer my questions. I’ll be posting up a blog post about Traveller of the Century shortly.

Picture credits: All of the illustrations used here were taken from Andrés Neuman’s official website with thanks.

 

 

Landing Author: Andrés Neuman (Traveller of the Century)

Cover of Traveller of the Century with silhouette of town

Traveller of the Century

By no stretch of the imagination can I claim that Traveller of the Century has been lurking unread on the (admittedly over populated) landing bookshelves, therefore I will not attempt to justify reading what is patently a NEW book. My only defence is that the nice people at Pushkin Press offered me a copy and it seemed impolite to refuse the kind offer. (How does that sound?). In fairness, I do not think I ever claimed that I was never going to read a new book while perusing the backlog (and indeed have already allowed exceptions for library loans).

Next week I will be posting up a Q and A session with Andrés Neuman, the South American author of Traveller of the Century (recently published in translation by Pushkin Press). The publishers are arranging a series of email interviews between Neuman and literary bloggers.

My slot is to be next Wednesday 25th April so I shall be posting up the eight questions that I submitted to the author and the responses to them. I will also put together a piece about the novel for visitors to The Landing to read. It is the first time that I have ever had the opportunity to ask questions of a writer, so I was apprehensive about having a go.

portrait of Andres Neuman

Andres Neuman

Pop back on Wednesday to see the results. Meanwhile, it is back to reading Traveller of the Century and making notes..