The OF Blog: Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves

Yesterday I didn't feel so good, I tried to take a nap, then your mum came back, I had a bad night, bah, we both did, I've been thinking a lot lately about when she and I met, it's amazing to think we might have lived different lives, a life without the other, the first thing I did after I told your granddad I was leaving the company was to enrol at the university, and it was a big shock for him, you know?, my father was one of those men who chop cheese with one stroke, you know?  that's where I met your mum, she didn't take much notice of me at first, how can I put it, she was more interested in rich kids, she denies it, we never agree about that part of the story, then luckily she started taking more of an interest in the lousy students, I had spotted her from day one, long before we started dating, do people still say dating?, maybe I sound old-fashioned, your mum would get straight A's, you know what she's like, heaven forbid a B, I used to scrape through, I never went near a classroom, as soon as I found out your mum wrote short stories I quickly did some research, oh yes, dear, I crammed for that all right, it's called doing field work. (p. 26, iPad iBooks e-edition, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia)

Spanish-Argentine writer Andrés Neuman seems to be one of those writers who does not revisit previous works and styles, even when they worked for him.  Talking to Ourselves, his recently-translated short novel, differs significantly from his 2009 Premio Alfaguara-winning Traveler of the Century in structure, form, and content.  It is a short (160 pages in print, 130 on my iPad), compact novel of loss told through the eyes of three family members.  Yet despite these differences, Talking to Ourselves is perhaps just as good as its celebrated predecessor.

Talking to Ourselves deals with the father Mario's impending death due to terminal cancer.  Bent on recording as much of himself as he can for his ten-year-old son Lito to listen to later, Mario's chapters here are transcriptions of recordings similar to the one quoted above.  He decides that before he is too ill to travel, that he will take young Lito to the beach, hoping to provide one last positive memory of the two of them together for his son to cherish.  Lito's chapters, narrated as though he were speaking directly to us, reflect his coming to terms with his father's illness.  By themselves, their chapters would make for an elegantly told, poignant account of mortality and how fathers and sons come to terms with terminal illness.

Yet the true center of Talking to Ourselves is the wife/mother, Elena.  Her reactions to Mario's illness display a range of conflicted emotions that force the reader to set aside any notions that this is another sappy, Hallmark TV-esque telenovela.  She finds herself distancing herself from Mario, even going so far as to beginning a sexual relationship with his doctor, Ezequiel.  But this is but one point on the spectrum of her conflicted emotions:  she also turns to reading literature, meditating on what Chekhov, Atwood, Aira, Bolaño, Marías, Garner, and others have to say about life and loss.  As she integrates their written thoughts into her own patchwork emotional defense, the story becomes deeper, as Neuman teases out deeper, more unsettling layers out of this compact novel of loss.

The prose for the most part is superb.  Each character possesses his or her own unique style.  Whereas Mario's chapters possess all of the hems and haws of transcribed recordings, Lito's direct yet naïve thoughts serve to provide a sense of innocence and exuberance to counter-balance the darker turns in his parents' chapters.  Elena's chapters are more philosophical in tone, keeping with tune with the works that she quotes and also with her wavering emotional state as she tries to forge a new life in preparation for the end of her husband's.  There are times perhaps where possibly a little bit more could have been said by each of the three, but for the most part, it is their silences and circumspect speech that supplement the revelations that they do make, creating a short yet intricately-woven narrative tapestry that should appeal to most readers. 

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