Hacerse el muerto (Playing Dead) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Hacerse el muerto
Andrés Neuman
Páginas de Espuma, 2011, pg 138

Andrés Neuman, one of the 20 selected by Granta last year, is one of the best of the group of the writers and Hacerse el muerto (Playing Dead) a collection of 30 stories is ample proof of that. Although little of his work has been translated into English yet, two of the stories from this collection are in the Granta volume with slightly different titles: Madre atras (Mother Behind) and El infierno del Sor Juna (Sor Juna’s Hell). What makes his short stories so good is devotion to the short story form as a means to explore different narrative ideas. He has no one style of writing the stories and some range from the heart felt descriptions of the loss of his mother to the fabulistic Sor Juna’s Hell to meta fiction that is consumed with the role of story. It should not be surprising that he has such interest as he has already published 3 other books of short stories and has edited one collection of Short Stories from Spain. That devotion even extends to the inclusion of 20 aphorisms on the art of writing short stories, of which many are koan-like and offer not only a guide to the writer, but a guide to Neuman’s art.

Hacerse el muerto is structured around the theme of death in all its forms, whether real or not, and is broken into six five story sections are thematically and stylistically linked. It is an approach that allows him to experiment with many different forms and modes of story telling. The book opens with El fusilado (The Firing Squad) a story of a man who is kneeling before a firing squad. Neuman describes the fear and terror in linguistic terms, taking apart the logic behind the words. But in that final moment when the order to fire is to be given, the true nature of the firing squad is given: it is a joke. The firing squad marches off laughing, calling him faggot. He is alive, but he is also dead, all his energy spent waiting in fear, he can do nothing more than lay in the mud like a dead man. In Un suicida resueño (A Reverberating Suicide) the narrator explains how he tries to kill himself but every time he tries to pull the trigger he breaks out laughing and is forced to drop the gun. The best he can do is wait and see if that laughter will go away, a sub conscious laughter that makes fun of the narrator’s seriousness and gives him something to live for, even if its to try again.

The above stories are well written and have great turns, but the stories that make up Una silla para alguien (A Seat for Someone) and the story Estar descalzo (To Be Shoeless) are the most arresting. All of them focus on the loss of a parent, mother in the former, father in the latter. He captures a sense of loss that is tied to the absences objects remind us of. In Estar descalzo the narrator is given his father’s shoes in the hospital and it is his relationship to the shoes that is the means for overcoming loss. Or in Madre atras (Mother Behind)  he gives a sponge bath to her back and uses the sponge to write what he has wanted to write since they had entered the hospital. Each of stories (often you might call them prose poems) are a meditation of loss that are subtle and not interested in the immediate feelings of grief, but a reflection years later of what it meant. Perhaps the best example is the very short Ambigüedad de las paradojas (The Ambiguity of the Paradoxes), which captures not only how beauty and loss go together, but how Neuman approaches those ideas, always leaving the story open.

Enterramos a mi madre un sábado al mediodía. Hacía un sol espléndido.

We buried my mother one Saturday at mid day. There was a splended sun.

Neuman also likes to experiment. In the section titled, Breve alegato contra el naturalismo (A Brief Argument Against Naturalism) he constructs five meta stories that either are interested in how one writes, or tries to break out of the naturalistic tendency in fiction. The most successful example is Policial cubista (Cubist Police Officer) which describes a murder scene in terms of a cubist. If you use Nude Descending a Staircase as an example the story makes perfect sense. In each case, it isn’t just one image, but multiple images as if you were seeing several photos at once. So in Neuman’s story you see the body, but you also see the person fleeing the scene. In a compact 200 words or so, he describes the arc of the encounter that led to the murder. It is a clever story that is as economical as a story could be and a great reuse of cubism.

Reading the stories of Andrés Neuman it is obvious that he is a great story teller, especially of the micro-relato (less than 1500 words). His stories are notable for their economy and the way he can pull the surprising conclusions together at the very last minute in ways that are both satisfying and leave the world of the story open, leaving one wanting to return to what passed by so quickly. That is the mark of a good writer.

To finish I’ll leave you with a couple of my favorite quotes from his ideas about writing short stories. These are not rules, as he points out, but ideas that are still evolving.

Mucho más urgente que noquear a lector es despertarlo.

It is much more important to wake the reader up than knock them out.

El cuento no tiene esencia, apenas constumbres.

A story does not have an inherent nature, it scarcely has customs.

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