Away (again) from the crazy German behemoth and back to Latin America, this time travel fiction/essay/micro fiction. Andrés Neuman’s latest “How To Travel Without Seeing”. Subtitled “Dispatches from the new Latin America”. Let’s let Neuman’s opening paragraph explain:
When the publishing house Alfaguara sent me the exhaustive itinerary of the book tour for their annual novel prize, I was sorry I wouldn’t have more time to spend in each place. But then I thought, isn’t that the point? Aren’t I going to experience, without even planning it, the very essence of contemporary tourism?
The book then takes the form of singular paragraphs as written in Neuman’s Moleskine, as he’s observing events unfold on his journey.
Before I write a book, I think more about tone than about plot, listening for the book’s eventual cadence. In this case I began to imagine a restless journal, told from a tight point of view and made up of a series of compact entries. One observation for each situation. One paragraph for each observation. There would never be a change of topic within a single entry. There would be no pauses. We no longer travel like that. We no longer see that way.
With the structure and restrictions in place Neuman heads off on his whirlwind tour of Latin America, starting with observations from his local airport, then flying to Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, Asunción, La Paz, Lima, Quito, Caracas, Bogotá, Mexico City, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, Miami, San Juan, Santo Domingo, Panama, San Salvador, and San José. There is a break, so Neuman can recharge, about half way through, however that’s hardly relevant to the writing style or the content.
Before you start thinking, ‘what a tedious read…I went here…I read this here…I went there!!!”, the format doesn’t take that route whatsoever. Neuman observes the nuances of language in each place, documents the brief chats with taxi drivers, describes the subtle differences in his hotel rooms, relays the current affairs of the day in each nation, is the death of Michael Jackson more prominent in some places rather than others? How does each nation deal with the outbreak of swine flu, what are the differences in immigration forms into each nation, and so on, the list of topics is endless.
We eat at Pescados Capitales – Cardinal Fins – a seafood restaurant. The menu begins with a quote from Joyce: “God made food; the devil the cooks.” I scan the selection of sins: Wrath is a tuna prepared à la Karp; Pride, a risotto à la Bonaparte; Lust, fettuccine with Tuna à la Casanova; Envy, a shrimp pot à la Cain; Impatience, a grilled tuna; Greed, a Rockefeller flounder; Sloth, congressional lobster and calamari. As always, I choose impatience.
Writers themselves, the ones Neuman meets on his travels, do not appear in his journal (there is an odd exception but no spoilers), but he does take us through the depth of local writing as he is in each country. It is not simply the Vargas Llosa’s, Garcia-Marquez’s or Bolaño’s though,, Neuman explores the up and coming writers, or occasionally the ones on the margins;
I read Humberto Ak’abal. Once I heard him live in Madrid (the word “live” has never been more appropriate: Ak’abal sings, rattles, and rains down his verses in a trance that sound like a meeting of birds and rivers), but I had never seen one of his books. His poetry is a conversation with pre_Columbian culture, Western literature, and Buddhist perceptions. In La Danza del espanto I find a Platonic science-fiction idea : “We are born with the memory of the future.” Later I read, “Distance is a key: / it opens or closes.”
Simply to use this book as a future reading list would give you years of material to explore, with Neuman obviously reading his way through each nation, but only presenting a few short gems of sentences in his journal, now the book we hold. Sometimes the references are very short, the poignancy more subtle, reading a nation through a simple sentence;
In Rafael Lugo’s novel Veinte, I read, “A little while ago I ran over three men with my car. It happened in the course of an honest day’s work.”
Taxi drivers are one of the main stay barometers of the local culture, or politics, their fingers on the pulse;
At this point, my routine with drivers who take me to the airport is almost spouse-like. They begin by making guarded observations about the weather. Then they become interested in my impressions of the city. And finally they ask me questions about what it’s like to be a writer. I try to avoid the topic, or at least shorten it, and get them to talk about politics. On this occasion, the Lima driver’s diagnosis is the following: “The first Fujimori administration was very good. He fought against the inflation and terrorism that were destroying us. The bad thing was that he later tried to perpetuate himself in power.”
Distinctly different from the previous works of Neuman’s I have read, The Things We Don’t Do, Talking to Ourselves , Traveller of the Century (all three titles translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia), this is conceptually an intriguing book, and in the skilled hands of Neuman it is highly readable and educational. A little knowledge of Latin American geography and politics would greatly assist, but it is not a prerequisite. In fact as a travel journal some of the observations are more insightful than any Lonely Planet, as you’re hearing about some of the activities not to undertake directly from the local’s mouths.
Restless Books are a publisher that has only recently made it onto my radar, and with a mission for: “readers and writers in search of new destinations, experiences, and perspectives. From Asia to the Americas, from Tehran to Tel Aviv, we deliver stories of discovery, adventure, dislocation, and transformation. Our readers are passionate about other cultures and other languages. Restless is committed to bringing out the best of international literature—fiction, journalism, memoirs, travel writing, illustrated books, and more—that reflects the restlessness of our multiform lives.” They will be a publisher I will visit more frequently, having also read “God is Round” by Juan Villoro (translated by Thomas Bunstead), / from their catalogue.