A Conversation with Andrés Neuman

Andrés Neuman published his first novel Bariloche at the age of twenty-two. The novel was a finalist for Spain’s prestigious Herralde Prize and garnered the admiration of many literary critics including the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who insisted that “the literature of the 21st century [would] belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.” A prolific writer, Neuman has since published nearly twenty books, including novels, poetry, aphorisms, short stories, and essays. He has won Spain’s National Critics Prize, the Hiperión Prize for poetry, and the Alfaguara Prize and in 2010 was selected by Granta as one of the 22 Best Young Spanish-Language novelists, catapulting his acclaim to international heights. His work has been translated into seventeen different languages.

His stunning English-language debut novel, Traveler of the Century, published by FSG in 2012, was shortlisted for the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was included on numerous best of the year lists in both the UK and the US.

His latest work, Talking to Ourselves, is the second of his novels to appear in English translation, and was published by FSG last month. It’s a novel told in three voices—that of a mother, a father, and their son—that explores issues dealing with death and how we communicate (successfully or unsuccessfully), to one another and to ourselves. It’s an intimate family portrait that illustrates, among other things, what happens to a family when confronted with illness—the various coping mechanisms of caregiver and the infirm, the elements of life one holds onto in the face of impending death.

I recently sat down with Neuman while he was in New York for PEN’s World Voices Festival. We discussed at length whether to conduct the interview in Spanish or in English. Neuman insisted we conduct the interview in his non-native English, joking that perhaps his gaps in English would make him sound more mysterious than he actually is.

—Elianna Kan

Elianna Kan: In English, we only have your two novels—Traveler of the Century and Talking to Ourselves—but you’re also a prolific short story writer, poet, and essayist. Do you find any one of these forms more or less freeing, when you choose to write poetry, say, as opposed to novels or short stories?

Andrés Neuman: Well, I guess poetry is the kingdom of happy disorientation. I don’t believe much in genres, to be honest; Supposedly working in all of them, I’ve ended up inhabiting the borders. The same is true of my national identify, having been forced to live between two nations. So I suppose, that now I don’t think of homelands or genres as pure.

But I think that poetry has a very specific kind of freedom, which has to do with almost always not knowing what you’re saying until you’re saying it, or to be more precise, being able to improvise one hundred percent of the syntax. That is a very specific type of freedom, both powerful and dangerous. It’s so easy to write a silly thing with that freedom and yet it’s so moving when you arrive at a meaning at the end of the syntax—as if the syntax were a living creature in search of something to say. I don’t think you can write a 500-page novel radically with that method.

EK: You mean that poetry is form in search of content; whereas in the case of the novel, content needs to precede form.

AN: Not so extreme, simply that that’s the main difference between poetry and the rest. Ultimately, that’s the essence of writing—writing in order to know what you think or feel, more so than writing to convey set thoughts and ideas. But this kind of discovery can occur one hundred percent of the time in poetry, whereas in other genres such as novels or essays there is some degree of research, some degree of premeditation; even though once you’ve started writing, all your plans change and that’s the beautiful thing about planning a novel. I know I won’t do what I planned but I need the plans as a crutch or scaffolding. It’s like traveling. The more you think about your next trip, the more excited you get. You have a list of places you’re supposed to visit and within the first hour at your new destination, you find something else and you miss everything else on your list. But you’re there because you had a plan. The failed plan is the reason why you started the journey in the first place.

EK: You once said that “poetry doesn’t have a mother tongue.” By that, do you mean that it’s supra-linguistic, that it’s beyond any sort of confines?

AN: No, I wouldn’t be that romantic. Poetry is still subject to various filters: cultural, ideological, gender… What I meant is that the sensation of not knowing how to say what you’re trying to say, that experience that many speakers of a foreign tongue have, that turns out to be the aim of poetry. You should feel that every single adjective is very strange, or you’re made to pay attention to the sound of the language. You get fascinated by its smallest and most irrelevant musical details, and I think that attitude towards language—the opposite of automaticization—of being pathologically conscious of your linguistic doubts and at the same time, of its possibilities—those are two things that poetry and foreign language have in common. So every time an author writes in another language—like Conrad, Nabokov, Beckett, or Charles Simic—that author is only exaggerating the process that lies underneath every act of literary writing.

EK: And the short story? In Spain, you have a number of short story collections. What does that form give you?

AN: Actually, I’m excited to say that next August in the UK, a collection of my short stories will be published in English translation entitled The Things We Don’t Do (Las cosas que no hacemos). The short story was the first form I worked hardest on when I began writing. As a partially Argentinean author I have always held the short story in high regard. Not the tradition of the long story, which is very American, of forty, fifty, sixty pages. It’s an interesting length but it’s more like a compressed novella; rather, I’m talking about the Latin American tradition of the short, short story. Borges- or Cortázar-length. Felisberto Hernández, Juan José Arreola, Virgilio Piñera, Augusto Monterroso—all these storytellers who didn’t need more than two, three, four pages to tell a story. When you work with that very restricted length, then you also have to do some things which are similar to poetry, so then the short story can become a kind of border between narrative and poetic artifact. I’m interested in poetry’s ability to tell a story, and a story’s ability to do something abnormal with language.

EK: You talk about the short story as particular to the Latin American literary tradition. And in descriptions of you as a writer, as a critic, you’re often talked about as occupying the borderland between Spain and Latin America, having lived in Spain but being born in Argentina. To what extent do you feel that’s true to what you harbor within you as a writer—that there’s something you’ve taken from a Latin American tradition and something that you actualize in your writing that’s influenced by physically living in Spain?

AN: There’s nothing extraordinary about being born in Latin America and moving to Spain. But my immigration happened when I was a boy, so that gave me two national educations and also made me lose national certainties forever. And it wasn’t my idea, it was my parents’. We moved from Buenos Aires, which is a huge, nervous, and central city to a small, peaceful town in southern Spain. The natural move would have been from Buenos Aires to Madrid but I not only changed countries, I changed rhythms. I don’t think there have been many Latin American authors who have immigrated to Granada, in particular. It meant I had to relearn my social codes, even my way of walking and I had to relearn my mother tongue. If you’re an adult and you have an accent that can be appealing, sexy even, being the foreign character. But you don’t think about that when you’re twelve. When you’re entering highschool, you try to belong somewhere and I didn’t belong anywhere. So very quickly I developed the ability to talk in an Andalucian accent in order to not be so noticed all the time. Because in the first few months I would say “buen día” and people would laugh because it’s “buenos días,” I’d say “uds” and it should be “vosotros.” I couldn’t build a single sentence without being looked at as a foreigner.

Now, I actually have two accents; when I’m outside of Spain, I talk with my Argentinean accent effortlessly but on the other hand, I’ve been living in Granada for over twenty years now, my wife is a Spaniard, my mother died in Spain, which is very meaningful for me. My mother was born in Argentina and died in Spain: so now go and choose a shore. You can’t. Choosing between the cradle and the grave of my mother. I can’t do that. I think all these biographical events gave me a sense of strangeness towards geography, towards the space in which you’re telling a story, towards the origins of the characters. And many years later, these issues would become central to my writing.

EK: How so? 

AN: Sometimes in my novels, it’s unclear where the protagonists come from, or they’re always moving so it’s not that a character loses his homeland, but the reader doesn’t even know what the homeland was to begin with. For example, in Talking To Ourselves, a father and son go on a journey together. They’re in a truck traversing highways that seem to join Latin America and Spain. Sometimes the landscape resembles southern Spain, then suddenly Patagonia or the border between Mexico and the United States. Both father and son seem to be perfectly fine with these landscapes as if they know where they are but the reader constantly wonders, “What the hell is this country?”

I suppose I tried to invent the highways for them 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. 

EK: Speaking of imagined places, or rather, places you can’t return to in spite of your longing: towards the end of Talking to Ourselves, Elena reflects on a photograph of her and Mario: “Seeing us cheerful not suspecting the future, I have the impression I am regaining certainty. That the past wasn’t my invention. That we were there, somewhere in time.” It immediately made me think of the movie La grande bellezza, in that the main character constantly relives, revisits the memory of his first love, as if that were the only thing that was ever real. The red-headed girl in your first novel Bariloche functions in the same way for Demetrio—an eternal symbol of some idyllic past.

AN: I was more romantic when I was younger. Romantic in the most philosophical sense. Now I don’t think the first love is the most important, I don’t think the origin is the truth.

EK: But it’s interesting that that is the only place these people continuously go back to in their memories, right?

AN: Of course, some of my characters believe in that because our cultural code is made of these essentialist anchors. We need a certain degree of certainty and that certainty can be found in our roots. We all need myths but that’s not my myth anymore. I believe more in movement now. And in Talking to Ourselves, I think Elena is actually speaking about something different. She’s not talking about first experiences or roots of identity, but rather, she’s talking about what memory is and how memory can rebuild your present. It’s a reflection on storytelling because without those pictures she would be unsure of her marriage, maybe it never existed, maybe this man never existed. To me, this passage you quoted demonstrates how language, in this case imagery, is a confirmation of what we call reality.

EK: Right, because the other place where Elena finds that affirmation of self, of feeling, of experience, is in other people’s words, not in her own experience but in other people’s texts. The more immersed she becomes in caring for her dying husband, the more hysterically she reads, expropriating other people’s language when she can’t find words for describing her own experience.

AN: I like the word expropriate. I think it’s very appropriate. She’s a compulsive underliner, that’s her job, underlining books. She’s a teacher, she’s a caregiver and she’s a very twisted lover, but above all, I think she is an underliner. As she says at some point in the novel, “When a book tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate the words, as if they had once belonged to me and I were taking them back.”

EK: It’s an act of affirmation.

AN: Yes. Her feelings are real because someone else felt the same thing, so they weren’t a mirage. For Elena, underlining is a way of validating her ideas. She does the same thing when she makes love. Reading and sex: these are her two weapons against death. We can’t blame her for that. There’s nothing better, I suppose.

When she gets involved in this very twisted relationship with her lover, she says that they abuse one another just to be sure the other is still there. They’re sharing an experience of death and when someone you love is dying you begin to doubt if your own body was ever there, if your own memory was a real one. When someone important disappears from your life, your memory begins to tremble like a light bulb that flickers on and off. So Elena looks for affirmation that she’s still alive in the body of her lover, proof that she hasn’t died along with the person who’s dying, and she uses books as confirmations of the ideas and the emotions that she’s had, they haven’t flown away, they too are still there in someone’s book.

Similarly, as you mentioned before, she rereads photographs—not with the intention of bringing Mario back, but with the intention of re-educating her memory, re-narrating her memory, it’s like she’s rereading her past. But that past changes meaning all the time. So it isn’t about going back to an idyllic past, I prefer re-reading. Because you never get the same meaning when you re-read a book and a memory never has the same meaning. That’s what I was saying about the roots, it’s not about returning to anywhere.

EK: So what are these texts she rereads?

AN: Some of my most beloved books are quoted by Elena, though not all of them because I only chose the ones that related to loss—this is, above all, a book about the caregiver’s loss, not about the illness. Or rather, about that very specific and tricky illness that is dealing with someone else’s illness, which is a particular sort of illness too. So I was more interested in Elena as a caregiver than in Mario as an ill character. I was more interested in the process of grieving and the gradual and very circuitous recovery of one’s own right to enjoy life. As Mario says, “It’s hard work enjoying life.” It’s a sort of art that you never really come to master.

EK: And Elena’s diary becomes invaded by outside voices, not her own, the closer she gets to Mario’s dying, the more difficult it becomes for her to find joy, catharsis maybe, in her own life.

AN: Exactly. The more speechless her life is becoming, the more words she needs to appropriate. In the end, it’s a reflection on the balance between inner silence, self-repression, and the need for outward expression, even if only through someone else’s words. And there were many writers I couldn’t include in her diary because they weren’t opportune. In fact, there’s almost no poetry quoted.

EK: Why?

AN: Because I didn’t think it was plausible. I thought it would be more effective if she read narrative and essays. So all my poets are out—Rilke, Cesar Vallejo, Wisława Szymborska. But now that I come to think of it, since Traveler of the Century is very much a book about translating poetry—it’s a love story between two translators, specifically translators of poetry—it was fair now to focus on narrative.

So I suppose one could say that among other things, Traveler of the Century is a love story focused on poetry in translation and Talking to Ourselves is a grief story focused on reading narrative, that’s it.

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