Andrés Neuman is a remarkable writer who is at home writing short stories and novels. With the publication of his latest book Hablar solos, he has returned to a more intimate writing than what readers of Traveler of the Century, published in English in 2012, might expect. At less than half the length, Hablar solos is closer in spirit to 2011’s collection of short stories Hacerse el muerto, and is composed of dialogue between three people. The three people, however, never talk to each other and in many ways do not interact with each other, instead they talk to each other as if they were writing a journal entry with all its rhetorical fluidity. I mention Hacerse el muerto because, while comic at times, returns to the theme of parental loss that he first touched on in his short quintet, Una silla para alguien. All of these elements make Hablar solos a much more personal book that shows a broad range of feeling and subjects he Neuman is willing to approach.
The three narrators are Mario, a truck driver and father of, Lito a young boy, and Elena, his wife and a professor of literature. As the book opens Mario takes Lito on a one of his deliveries in his truck, Pedro. As they drive across Spain, Mario takes Lito on a grand adventure, seeping in the cab, eating at truck stops, sleeping in hotels. It is all fascinating for the boy and everything is a big adventure. Even when strange encounters occur Lito has no idea what it really going on. Nor does he know that Mario is dying of cancer and this is their last time together. Everything they do in the truck together is tinged with sadness as Mario knows it is the last time they can do it together. While Lito’s narration is fairly matter of fact: we did this, saw that; Mario’s is a pleas for his son to remember the things they did together and understand some day what he did for Lito on that journey.
Perhaps the best example of the two voices working together is when they spend the night in a strange hotel that doesn’t even have a shower in the bathroom and Mario insists Lito not sit on the bed spread and make sure he walks everywhere with his slippers. In the hotel cafe where men and women dance, that in itself a rarity, they meet a self described magician who gives Lito a hat. Mario can’t wait to get him out of there despite Lito’s protests. He doesn’t understand why his father would do that when they were having such a good time. What Lito doesn’t know is they are in a brothel because Mario felt so sick he couldn’t continue on and stopped at the first hotel he could find. The man, Mario says, though Lito was for rent since who could believe a father would bring their son into a place like that. It is a funny and touching moment showing both the desperation of the father to have that one last experience with his son, and to protect him from what ever harm he can.
The strongest and ever present voice, though, is Elena. He narration makes up half the book and is where the real exploration of the pain of loss happens. Mario is unable to express himself very deeply. Everything goes through the family, but for Elena the coming loss is overwhelming and leads her into an affair with Mario’s cancer doctor. It is a strange relationship, almost sadomasochistic, one where the doctor fetishes the human body in all its failings. It isn’t so much a love affair as an act of denial: for her that death is coming; for the doctor that in worshiping the body, even with all its flaws, can heal those who are about to feel loss. These are the conversations Mario and Elena should be having, but the novel is called Hablar solos for a good reason: no one is willing to discuss anything and leaves Elena to wonder
Pero otras veces me pregunto: ¿Y si ese, exactamente, fuera Mario? ¿Y si, en lugar de haber perdido su esencia, ahora sólo quedase lo esencial de él? ¿Como una desilación? ¿Y si en este hospital estuvieramos malentendiendo los cuerpos de nuestors seres queridos?
But at other times I wondered: And if this really were Mario? And if instead of having lost his essence, now, only remained the essential parts of him? Like a distillation? And if in this hospital we are misunderstanding the bodies of our dear ones?
Because Mario and Elena speak by themselves they are unable to answer these questions. It makes the grief Elena feels all the greater. Yet when it is a private thing and when she is reproached for not having asked earlier for help from her friends or family she says,
Confunden SOS y SSO, lo que yo llamo Servicio Sentimental Obligatorio
They confuse the SOS and the OSS, what I call the Obligatory Sentimental Service.
It is a line that captures the novel well, the struggle between communicating and expressing one’s self. The irony of the novel is that although the characters are talking alone, they are talking ad they know they need to pass along what they have to say, they just can’t bring themselves to do it in conversation. It is as if conversation would contain their ability to express themselves.
Hablar solos is an excellent book that successfully renders three distinct voices into a conversation. Neuman’s experiment with the different voices is quite successful and even though you don’t know the whole back story to the characters (this feels like Neuman the short story writer at work, and a nice touch), you have the sense of a completion. What really made the novel so good, though, was Neuman’s way of delving into the slow loss that cancer brings. It can make the novel tough at times, but the humor, especially in the voice of Lito, doesn’t less it so much as make it easier to approach. It is a delicate balancing act that shows Neuman at the top of his game and a writer whose next work I look forward to reading.
If you are looking to read it in English, Puskin Press will be publishing it in Spring 2014.