Andrés Neuman is unthreatened by borders. If writers are born in response to trauma, then Neuman, the writer, emerged when his family fled Argentina for Granada when he was fourteen, in 1991. Eight years later, his first novel, Bariloche, was awarded first runner up for the Herralde Prize. Roberto Bolaño immediately read it and set down the words that still grace the back covers of all Neuman’s books: “The literature of the twenty-first century would belong to Andrés Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.” Now Neuman, not yet thirty-eight years old, has already published nearly twenty books, received the Alfaguara Prize and Spanish National Critics Prize, and been named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Novelists. His writing covers broad terrain, from historical fiction to modern-day family dramas, and at the center of his literary endeavors are the repercussions of loss and dislocation. Neuman has spent his career crossing boundaries both literary and geographical, and it feels appropriate that he would tell The American Reader that the move to Granada instilled him with “a sense of strangeness towards geography, towards the space in which you’re telling a story, towards the origins of the characters.”
This strangeness makes its presence known in Traveler of the Century, which was translated into English in 2012. The novel follows an itinerant translator, Hans, as he sojourns in Wandernburg, a fictional town on the borders between Prussia and Saxony. Here, the streets have a tendency to change positions as effortlessly as those in Inception. In Wandernburg, Hans partners—professionally, erotically—with another translator, the soon-to-be-wed Sophie Gottlieb. Her frequent salons transform Traveler into a mash up of nineteenth century philosophy and literature, brimming with discussions about Goethe, Coleridge, Kant, and Schopenhauer. It’s an ambitious project, and ambition, for Neuman, means sabotaging the nineteenth century novel by extending the domestic tableau beyond dinner parties and deathbeds to include explicit sex, urination, and the meandering buzz of a fly. Neuman broadens the novel’s traditional narrative scope and in so doing pushes beyond the boundaries of historical fiction to something stylistically contemporary and new.
Boundaries and borders carry significant metaphorical weight in Neuman’s writing. One of his primary concerns is finding ways to dissolve the borders between what is felt and what is said. In Talking to Ourselves, Neuman’s most recent novel both in Spanish and in English, the nature of grief and lying is interrogated via three distinct first-person perspectives: ten-year-old Lito, his mother Elena, and her terminally ill husband, Mario. Neuman takes great pains to distinguish the voices of his characters, and translators Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia have succeeded in maintaining the idiosyncrasies of each narrator. Lito’s thoughts are conveyed directly to readers in a stilted, simplified prose that, for better or worse, effectively mimics the voice of a ten-year-old boy. Elena writes in a journal, her entries forming a collage of literary excerpts and personal grief. And Mario speaks into a tape recorder, addressing Lito, as a sort of last letter and primer on manhood.
The majority of Talking to Ourselves, like Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays, takes place off the page. Only in Lito’s sections do we see characters in scene. Elena and Mario’s sections give us reflections, summaries of events, and later revisions of those same events. Sections expand and recontextualize their predecessors. A man whom Lito assumes is a magician, for instance, is later identified in Mario’s recollection of the encounter as a creep. These discreet monologues harmonize, creating a narrative whole that advances the plot, while still leaving each character effectively isolated. They are unable to truly communicate, unable to be open or honest with one another. Both Mario and Elena lie to Lito about the extent of Mario’s illness, placing their son in that fantasy kingdom where nobody dies. Doctors lie to patients. Elena has a secret affair with Mario’s doctor. Lito’s text messages to Elena are practically incomprehensible. Time and again Mario, ailing, tells Elena he’s fine. Language, Neuman suggests, has no allegiance to honesty. It only functions as a means of exchange.
Families are founded on myths. And one in particular that Neuman’s novel seeks to subvert is the myth of unconditional caregiving. Neuman’s mother died young of a terminal illness, and he wrote Talking to Ourselves, in part, to expose the darker side of caregiving. Elena’s sections are charged with contrasting emotions: hatred, lust, sentimentality, guilt, grief, and hyperbole:
I find it impossible to read. I feel horny. I think a lot about jumping out of the window. I want my husband and my son to come home now and not to come home. I want this house to return to normal and I will never be normal again.
In calmer moments, she compares caregiving to the crater left by a meteorite. Lying to Lito drains her; she inhabits Mario’s pain: “By avoiding the subject of his death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little.” But she defends herself against death through sex and reading. Her affair with Mario’s doctor is a violent and, eventually, ineffective way to prove that she is still alive. Books help affirm her feelings. “I suspect this book will not be so much a painkiller as a vaccine,” she writes of Juan Garcia Armendáriz’s journal, “it will inoculate me with the unease I am striving to overcome.” As the walls between Elena and her family grow higher-Lito will not answer his phone, she cannot make love to Mario-the walls separating her and her books dissolve. Elena is a literary appropriator. Throughout her journal entries, passages are incorporated into her writing mid-sentence, merging her feelings and thoughts with those of the books.
The difficulty about writing a book about caregiving rather than illness is that, as the success of The Fault in Our Stars and Breaking Bad demonstrate, illness is a far more compelling topic. Neuman navigates this problem by choosing to leave Mario’s illness unnamed. He even seems to tease readers about its absence. In one passage, for instance, Elena recalls making love to Mario the day they “found out what his illness was.” That’s about as close as we get to a diagnosis. Neuman articulates this idea in his short story, “A Mother Ago,” when the narrator wonders, “What was my mother’s illness? It doesn’t matter. It is the least important thing. It is out of focus.” Etiology is anti-artistic. Symptoms are tools of classification, asserting meaning where there is none, offering the false promise of cures and answers. But art is without answers. Neuman has set himself the task of articulating the emotional toll of the sick and their loved ones-what it feels like to face one’s own death or the death of a lover, not whether a pain is sharp or dull.
Neuman obfuscates the geography in Talking to Ourselves to similar effect: rather than clarifying landscape, he emphasizes relationships. Lito and Mario spend much of the novel on the road, delivering unknown cargo to an unknown location, traversing what appear to be roads in Spain, Mexico, the southern U.S., and even Patagonia. In the same interview with The American Reader, Neuman suggests that his emigration from Argentina led him to “invent the highways that I wish actually existed, or maybe not the highways, maybe just the small lost roads. Because those impossible, imagined roads are mine, the roads connecting two shores that are separated by the same language.” Once again, he draws attention away from authenticity. Like the sword lofted by Franz Kafka’s Statue of Liberty, or the fabricated America in Gerald Murnane’s Inland, the highways in Talking to Ourselves are expressions of an authorial subconscious, unburdened by the potholes and lane mergers of verisimilitude.
More important: emotional realities. At the end of Talking to Ourselves, each character remains divided on temporal and epistemological planes. Lito’s section leaves off when he and his father return home from their journey. Mario’s recordings end with a powerful address to Lito that his son is unlikely to hear:
Enjoy life, do you hear?, it’s hard work enjoying life, and have patience, not too much, and look after yourself as if you knew you won’t always be young, even though you won’t know it and that’s okay, and have plenty of sex, son, do it for your sake and mine and even your mother’s, lots of sex, and if you have children, have them late, and go to the beach in winter, in winter it’s better, you'll see, my head hurts yet I feel good . . . try not to fall in love all the time, and care about your looks, do you hear me? men who don't care about their looks are afraid of being queer, and if you are queer, be a man, in short, advice isn’t much use, if you disagree with it you don’t listen.
This passage is not only moving, but also eerie. It appears in the book after we learn about Mario’s passing in Elena's journal. Mario speaks as a ghost in the recordings that Elena keeps for herself. Neuman’s structure intensifies each character's isolation. Boundaries do not exist in Neuman’s world to deny the possibility of loving one another, but rather to remind us how difficult it can be to connect, honestly, with another human being.
That these themes of border crossing have pervaded Neuman’s life is made vividly clear in Neuman’s short-story collection, The Things We Don’t Do, his first collection translated into English. Spanning thirty-five stories and four “Dodecalogues from a Storyteller” from four Spanish volumes, Neuman’s slim compilation probes again and again the boundaries between life and death, sickness and health, love and hate. What makes Neuman’s work fresh and new is his belief that as a mode of writing, the story-and not its protagonists-exists on “a kind of border between narrative and poetic artifact.” It is the story itself pushing boundaries, not merely its players.
Neuman tends to write what would be considered flash fiction, brief, elliptical stories driven by nuances of language rather than by plot. They are stories that work in the mode of writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Felisberto Hernández, all of whom Neuman openly admires for their brevity. However, Neuman is at his best when he lets his story grow beyond a couple of pages. “Delivery,” for instance, is a tender and fantastical story about a man who gives birth to the child he “will be, the one [he has] not yet been, the one [he] could not be.” The story stretches a single, hectic sentence over the course of seven pages. Neuman was the son of two musicians—a violinist and an oboist—and the influence of music is palpable here. “Delivery” is written as a kind of symphony, building through the intersection of memories, phrases, and images. It finds energy in counterpoint, in the collision between abstract lyricism and straightforward prose: “And it was true that the light came in fragmented and warm through the windows, or rather, let’s be frank and call them slits in the wall.” Neuman displays a wide and careful tonal range, moving seamlessly between haunting childhood memories and the narrator's joyous advice to his soon-to-be son. “Here’s the world for you, son,” he says, echoing Mario at the end of Talking to Ourselves, “clean and cruel, fragrant and rotten, sincere and deceiving.” Neuman's writing often contains a curious mixture of horror and beauty. It’s not that he is trying to aestheticize the world’s savagery. He can’t help it. And in a story like “Delivery,” Neuman simultaneously resists and celebrates the Manichean flux of the human condition.
Throughout his collection, Neuman tests the boundaries of identity and selfhood, as if preparing for the larger questions of identity within Traveler of the Century. “Juan & José,” for instance, reads like a puzzle. The story takes the form of intersecting journal entries, those of Juan and those of José. Each character believes he is a psychiatrist tasked with treating the other. At the end of his first entry, Juan writes, “What further introspective insights could I make about myself? Lots, but not now. I have to read over my latest reports, make notes and copy everything out before my session with José.” And shortly into his entry, José writes, “I try to cheer myself up with the thought that, without me the patient [Juan] would be worse off.” As the story progresses, “José’s game,” as Juan describes it, becomes increasingly difficult to parse. Juan and José begin to mirror each other, and the story concludes with a return to its enigmatic beginning. The game isn’t José’s, but Neuman’s. Identity, in a story, is a matter of language, and Neuman repeatedly emphasizes how linguistic borders between characters are permeable. When, Neuman asks, do we become something other than who we are? When does Juan become José? José become Juan?
This question extends beyond identity to one of Neuman’s central and recurrent thematic concerns: mortality. At the end of another story, “Bathtub,” the narrator recounts the death of his grandfather. “It was then, yes, that he sealed his lips and eyelids once more and lay back until he could feel the marble, and my grandfather ceased to be my grandfather.” Because language and its signified fail at this point, death, here, is a loss of identity. Likewise, in “Gun Shot,” the prisoner Mayano, stands before a firing squad, unaware that he is the subject of a mock execution. He steels himself for his death, so that when the triggers click and nothing happens he falls into the mud alive but “panting, all dead.” The story asks us how one persists after inhabiting death. Can one?
The best answer Neuman offer is in his story, “After Elena,” originally published in Granta’s Best Young Spanish Novelists. Here, Neuman explores the complicated, and oftentimes fleeting, impulse for metamorphosis. The narrator of “After Elena,” recently widowed, becomes aware of his own mortality and decides to forgive his enemies. Luckily, he only has four. Meeting with each one-on-one, he encourages them to “admit they considered [him] a hateful person.” They have no reason to withhold those sentiments, he reasons, “Because in the end, they and I, us and our worst enemies, would soon die. And to live hating was far worse than to die loving.” An olive branch, though, is notoriously thin, too weak to support the weight of a grudge. When, at the end of the story, the narrator throws a party for his enemies, we’re left asking, along with the narrator, “What is more harmful to us? If one isn’t prepared to love others, that mutilated love, that failure of our well-being, does it console or torment us?”
The Things We Don’t Do, like both of Neuman’s novels, was translated by Caistor and Garcia. The pair deserves high praise for having deftly conveyed Neuman’s protean style into English. As Neuman told the New York Times, “Each novel should refute the previous one.” A difficult task, given the scope of his oeuvre, but remarkably very few stories in Things read like sketches for later works. All three books testify to Neuman’s ability to continually innovate without compromising the powerful empathy and intelligence displayed in his earliest stories. Neuman is one of the rare writers who can distill the most complex human emotions with apparent effortlessness. Bolaño’s prophecy seems to have come true: Andrés Neuman has transcended the boundaries of geography, time, and language to become one of the most significant writers of the early twenty-first century.
Alex McElroy’s work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Tin House, Diagram, Quarterly Conversation, The Millions, and more work can be found here. He is currently the International Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.