I wonder whether, perhaps without realizing it, we seek out the books we need to read. Or whether books themselves, which are intelligent entities, detect their readers and catch their eye. In the end, every book is the I Ching. You pick it up, open it and there it is, there you are.
In 2013, Andres Neuman’s “Traveller of the Century” made the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Best Translated Book Award and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award lists. Therefore his latest work to be translated, published in Spain as “Hablar Solos” in 2012, “Talking To Ourselves” was one work I “sought out”, and making the longlist of this year’s Best Translated Book Award, raised it higher in my “to be read pile”.
Our work is written in three voices, Lito, Elena and Mario, each in the first person and in alternating chapters. Commencing with ten-year-old Lito, we learn of his journey with his dad in a truck. His dreams are basic, video games, driving and bonding with his father now that he’s all grown up.
We then move to Elena, Lito’s mother, who reveals her fear for her child being away, on the road, her concerns and the truth behind the roadtrip as well as her angst towards her husband Mario.
I’ve just called Dr. Escalante. I made an emergency appointment so that he can tell me about Mario’s physical state and whether he will really make it through this trip. We should have consulted Dr. Escalante before deciding anything. Perhaps Mario knew what the answer would be, and that’s why he was against it from the start. He kept telling me it was a personal matter, not a medical one. What was I supposed to do, drag him there? But I think that now at least I am within my rights to see Dr. Escalante on my own. I want to know exactly how he found him during the last checkup. I’m going to ask him to be absolutely honest. I suppose I must have sounded quite anxious, because he’s given me an appointment tomorrow morning at eleven.
The staff room is not far away, so I’ll make the most of it and go there to prepare the language resits. They are still some way off, but not working drives me crazy. I’m afraid there are two kinds of alienation: one is the exploited worker’s, the other that of the worker on holiday. The first has no time to think. The second can only think, and that is his sentence.
I’m still waiting for Mario to reply to my message. I feel hot and nervous at the same time. I need to scratch my body hard all over, until I’ve peeled away something I can’t quite put a name to. I don’t like it when Mario answers the phone while he’s driving. And so I am in his hands. It is me he is throttling as he grips the steering wheel. He turns it. And he is wringing my neck. Enough. I won’t continue this diary until I receive his message.
I won’t continue this dairy until I receive his message.
I won’t continue this dairy until I receive his message.
I won’t continue this dairy until. At last, at last.
We then move to Mario’s “dairy”, he is recording a monologue for Lito, slowly revealing his anguish of his impending death.
Our story is very distinct in the three different voices, with Neuman’s skill at revealing different emotions, different tones, syntax, levels of maturity and their future plans a real feature here.
…a question kids only ask themselves for real, and then we sick people ask it again: is it okay to lie?, is it okay to be lied to?, a healthy grown-up won’t even give it a thought, the answer seems obvious, right?, we learn to tell lies the same way we learn to talk, they teach us how to talk and then how to be quiet, I don’t know, like when you play football, for example, first you kick the ball and then, unless you’re stupid, you learn not to kick it, to move around tricking the other players, kids lie too, of course, I lied all the time when I was a kid, but, what I’m saying is, until you get to a certain age, you think it’s wrong, that is the difference, I don’t think we grown-ups are any worse, you know?, every kid contains the beginnings of a possible son of a bitch, this much I know, it’s just that kids, and perhaps we adults are to blame for this, start by dividing the world into good and evil, truth and lies, the only time it’s okay for them to lie is when they’re playing, then it’s allowed, so kids become grown-ups when they play, sort of the opposite of us parents, we play so we can be kids again, well, and then you grow up, and you lie and are lied to, and it isn’t wrong, until one day, when you’re sick, you begin to worry again about lies, you worry about them every time you talk to the doctors, your wife, your family, it’s not a moral question, it’s,, I don’t know, something physical, deep down you’re scared stiff of the truth, but the idea of dying with a lie scares you even more, lies help us to carry on living, don’t they?, and when you know you aren’t going to carry on, you feel they’re no use anymore, do you know what I mean?
Through three simple tales, told through the eyes of three family members, with minimal interactions outside of their own family circle, the subjects of parenthood, fears of a premature death (from both Mario himself as well as Elena’s fears of being a single parent) and the basic day to day interactions and distrust of a family unit are all bubbling along.
Using the three different styles, Elena writing a diary, Mario dictating his and Lito simply thinking the voices all ring true:
We sit down at some plastic tables. There are old people and kids with dogs in the square. I’m pouring with sweat but super happy. Dad coughs. I order a Coke with a slice of lemon, He asks for a bottle of mineral water. And he takes and allergy pill. I drink my Coke in one go. I ask dad if I can order another. I’m sure he’ll say no. He doesn’t like me having too many fizzy drinks. But this time he says yes. Mum would be angry. Dad keeps coughing. He tells me the air in Salto Grande is full of pollen, I tip my glass. The ice cubes bounce off my nose. I imagine I’m a spaceship and they’re meteorites crashing into me. Is there ice in space? Or is space made of ice? I saw a documentary about glaciers the other day. But if so, then how do spaceships fly? My tummy is full of bubbles. My tummy could do with a drill. I burp and laugh. I ask if we’re leaving yet. Dad says he prefers to stay here a bit longer. I fold my arms. I’m starting to feel bored. I look around. I see a poster with the Internet sign. I ask if I can go, Dad can’t see the poster I’m pointing to very well. He looks at all the people around us. He hesitates. He tells me on no account to go off anywhere else. He’ll be watching the door. And he gives me a few coins. Cool! He’s soft today.
This was a work I thoroughly enjoyed and was surprised it didn’t make the shortlist for the Best Translated Book Award and not knowing if it was entered for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize I will not comment on its eligibility for that award, nor the merits of this work above so many others on that longlist.
As per “Traveller of the Century” our work contains numerous literary references so you can delve further and further into Neuman’s psyche simply reading the bibliography at the end of the book. With twenty three books referenced, from Bolano, to Javier Marias, Kenzaburo Oe to Chekhov or even Margaret Atwood or Helen Garner our author is certainly widely read!!!
Andres Neuman is one writer I will continue to seek out from here on in. As the opening quote states, I’ll be seeking out the books I want to read!!!