Earlier in the week I reviewed the collection of short stories, from Canada, “Arvida” by Samuel Archibald, and that works shares a lot in common with Andrés Neuman’s latest release into English, “The Things We Don’t Do”. The personal recollections, the art of writing, the meta-fiction all in this book too.
When I reviewed Andrés Neuman’s “Talking to Ourselves”, also translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, I spoke of the relationship theme, that work being in three different voices told of a single family and their interactions, and Neuman continues the delving into relationships here with a collection gleaned from many sources and over many years. As a blurb of this work says; “Inspired by Borges and Cortazar, and echoing Vila Matas and Zarraluki, Neuman regards both life and literature’s big subjects – identity, relationships, guilt and innocence, the survival of extreme circumstances, creativity and language – with a quizzical, philosophical eye. Shining from the page with both irony and mortal seriousness, these often tragicomic ‘stories of ideas’ vacillate between the touching and the absurd, in the best tradition of Spanish storytelling.”
Here we still have the proving of oneself to another, “for once I had been good enough for her.” We have the perfect relationships, “what a perfect couple, two halves of the same little orange.” (from ‘a terribly perfect couple), fractured relationships “why would her husband pawn his present from the Christmas before last?” (from ‘secondhand’), new relationships as described in ‘delivery’ a single sentence rant over 10 pages taking place in a delivery theatre, about birth, creation, parenthood, a frantic replication of the thoughts that take place when a birth is underway.
The book is split into six different sections, each with a theme. As pointed out in the accompanying subscriber’s letter by Director of Open Letter Chad W. Post, that came with this book, “Andrés pulled these stories from a number of collections, both because they are some of his best stories, and because they work together in broad thematic strokes to create a collection that builds on itself from stories about relationships, to one about the final moments of life, to pieces about the ‘end and beginning of lexis.’” Very similar to “Arvida” in that although these are stand-alone works, the collection works a whole, those “broad thematic strokes” painting a vivid holistic picture.
‘my false name’ is the story of the Neuman surname, from Europe to Argentina and the chance mixing up of Neuman’s that has succeeded in allowing the false surname to continue. Another very personal collection, nothing more so than the final four sections, ‘dodecalogues from a storyteller’, these “do not claim to be rules for writing stories; they are personal observations that arose during the writing process. It is worth purchasing this volume for these notes alone, their whimsy, insightfulness, a few examples:
To tell a short story is to know how to keep a secret.
Although told in the past tense, stories always happen now.
Far more urgent than to knock a reader out is to wake a reader up.
Some short stories would deserve to end with a semicolon;
‘The Last Minute’ exploring death with a grandfather in a bathtub, a suicide, an honourable Japanese gentleman eating takifugu (poisonous globe fish), to the section ‘relatives and strangers’ which includes a story about an analyst and his patient, but who is the patient? The lines being blurred.
The sections “End And Beginning of Lexis” and, obviously, the ‘Bonus Tracks’ for the US, Open Letter, edition, “Dodecalogues From a Storyteller”, very much focus on the art of writing and these are the sections that are full of irony, amusement and black humour. We have Vilchez, Tenenbaum, Rinaldi joining translator Piotry Czery at an event “the end of reading”, the irony in the story being that we are reading it!
“Lexis” being the total stock of words in a language these sections very much explore the art of translation, creation, reading and the more astute, or well read, readers will notice many interplays in this section:
Borges was blind, although he could still make out shapes, blotches, shadows. He could not read books or recognize faces, but he could see phantoms. Golden phantoms. As those of us who were his unconditional fans were aware, out of the precarious well into which time had gradually been plunging him, Borges could distinguish a single color. Therefore, when we learned he had agreed to give a talk to our Foundation, some of us thought up the idea of preparing a modest homage for him: all those present were waiting for him dressed in yellow, the feline yellow. Irma buttoned up her blouse, staring into space.
For readers who have read “Traveller of the Century” and/or “Talking to Ourselves” (both also translated by Lorenza Garcia and Nick Caistor) this collection is more aligned to the later “Talking To Ourselves” and less to the sweeping story of Hans and Sophie and their translations of great European literature, the later sections do lean slightly toward that theme in the longer novel.
A very enjoyable collection of short sharp stories, an insight into the art of writing, the playfulness of language and translation, this is another welcome addition to the English language oeuvre for Andrés Neuman.