Traveler of the Century (El viajero del siglo) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Traveler of the Century
Andrés Neuman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 564 pg

El viajero del siglo
Andrés Neuman
Alfaguara, 2009, 531 pg

Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century (El viajero del siglo) is a broad novel of ideas that takes place in post a Napoleonic Europe that at first seems distant, but as he makes quite clear the same debates and the same arguments are still with us. It is an impressive bit of scholarship, bringing to life the philosophical arguments that have receded into the past. At the same time, Neuman also constructs a narrative that is equally interesting, giving the book a narrative impulse that is a good counterpoint to discussions about Schiller, Goethe and other 19th century German thinkers.

The novel follows Hans a world traveler who stops at the town of Wandernburg on the border of Saxony and Prussia. He intends to stay only a few days and move on, but he meets an organ grinder in the town square and they begin a friendship. The organ grinder is a kind of sage with whom he respects for his detached way of looking at the world, which lets him obverse the town, but stay distant from its intrigues. He also has seems to know that Hans should stay in the town and suggests after they first meet that he should stay an extra week. In that week, Hans who still plans to leave as he does every town he visits, meets the Gottlieb family and is taken with the daughter, Sophie. Once he has meet the family, striking up a friendship with the father and latter managing to get himself invited to the salon that Sophie hosts, he becomes, at least for a time, a resident of the town.

During the salon Hans, Sophie, an older professor named Mietter, a Spanish expat Alvaro, and several towns people discuss everything from the European union under Napoleon, the value of religion, which forms of government are best, and the merits of classicism versus romanticism.  While everyone chimes in, Hans as the worldly traveler brings the new liberal and romantic ideals to the group and often spars with Mietter who represents a conservative, Catholic, and classical view. The two are usually at odds and although Alvaro with his anti-clericalism can shock the group, Hans is the true rebel of the group expressing ideas that propose to overthrow the established order and many times are illegal in Saxony.

It is during these salons that the book returns over an over to the idea of identity. What is it that makes Europe, Europe? It seems to be odd to discussing these ideas again, and occasionally  during the salons I found myself thinking, yes, I already know this, why do I need to read this way. Yet these arguments are still going on and taking a gaze at Europe it is obvious that these arguments only seem settled because they are old. For example, at one point Alvaro notes it is better have less religious freedom because it leads to greater belief, unlike Spain which has such high disbelief thanks to the church. That friction still exists in Spain and has been an issue for a over a century. In other parts of the book, he looks at the desire for every ethnic group to have its own country, a topic that is still hotly debated in several countries. It is in these discussions that the book is more than just a rereading of German romantic thought, but rediscovery of the same problems that they tried to address and which have yet to be settled. While the novel was written between 2003 and 2008, the questions have taken on even more weight in light of the financial crisis that has exposed even more points of contention between the countries of Europe. (Alvaro’s funny take of the genius of Goya who knew to change the heads of the figures in the painting Allegory of the City of Madrid with the each change in politics, is particularly funny and telling.)

The narrative begins to move ahead at a quick pace when Hans and Sophie begin a passionate love affair. At first it is stolen glances and furtive meetings on country excursions, but soon the begin to meet in his rooms under the pretext of translating poems for publication. Between making love and delving into the subtlest meanings of words, they spend hours together in a world of romance and translation, as if each were part of the other. Neuman spends a fair amount of time talking about translation and his interest in the subject is quite deep. And within the greater theme of the book that Hans as a traveler is a translator of different places and ideas, it ties together all these discussions about politics with the simple need to be heard: without translation, in its specific sense of language, or the broader sense of different ideas into new forms that can be understood by new people, people stagnate. Of course, it is also a literary argument and Neuman shows great care in describing the process of translation, especially the argument between fidelity to the language versus fidelity to the meaning. As Sophie says, “Translation and manipulation are two different things wouldn’t you say?”

Eventually, Hans is found out to be the revolutionary he is–as men and women with new ideas are always called. As a result the love affair ends and Hans knowing that there is nothing left for him, has to leave town, finally, a year latter. At first the ending may see a little abrupt because Hans leaves town and nothing has really changed, except that Sophie is no longer engaged. But that is it. Yet that is really the perfect way for a traveler to come and go, both in the narrative and metaphorical sense. Hans is not meant to stay long, because like ideas, he must continue on, encountering new problems, new challenges to meet. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where Hans is, because he has exposed Sophie to something that will continue to grow and help question what identity really is. And in that exploration Neuman has created a  work that is both prescient and needed.

A Note on the Translation

I read the first two thirds in Spanish. I had bought the book back in 2010 and had not gotten around to reading it until now. I switched to the English translation when the publisher sent it to me, mostly likely at the behest of Andrés (but who ever sent it, thanks).  Although it was a little strange to hear the characters all of a sudden in English instead of Spanish when I made the switch, I thought the translation was quite effective. It was a very good representation of the original Spanish and eminently readable.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon – A Review

My Little War
Louis Paul Boon
Dalkey Archive, 2010 125 pg

This scant book is one of the more interesting ways to write about war I have read. It is also what makes it difficult to capture. My Little War is a series of 1-3 page episodes and little paragraph length moments that are tacked to the end of the episodes without any real relationship. They are just more noise of war. All of it is narrated by a person claiming to be the author. I mention this because while the style is consistent, one has the impression that multiple voices are at work. Nevertheless, each of the episodes describes the chaotic lives of the Flemish during World War II. The stories aren’t related and do not create a narrative arc that ties the lives of the characters together, giving the reader much of a connection to the characters. Boon is not creating great heroic stories of the resistance or of the pathos of the long suffering. Instead, he shows a world that in many ways has always existed and which during the shifting power structures of the war force to the surface. In story after story he shows the Belgians stealing and lying to survive. At other times the fascist sympathizers parade around town, finally powerful, only to change their stripes when the allies come. It’s a vision of pettiness that makes some of the Belgians look anything but heroic. That view is part of his larger point about the war. Those who lived  through it were surviving each day lacking any information of what was going on or any power to control it. It is not a sympathetic view, but it is effective and the voices of the episodes that seem anonymous in their brevity begin to suggest one thing: what was it all for?

But all the poets who wrote so enthusiastically about the Eastern front peeked out cautiously in their socks, back to writing poems about the stars and their solitude and God–God for God’s sake–after having pissed right onto Christ’s loincloth.

Tin House #50 – A Review

I finally finished the ever interesting Tin House this week. As usual, there were some excellent pieces and some that, while not bad, weren’t as interesting. The big piece in the issue was an excerpt form Michel Houellebecq’s newest book, The Map and the Territory. I’ve only read Platform and found parts of it interesting, this piece, as is the case with most novel excerpts, did little to interest me, or better said, I would like to read his book in spite of what I read here. On the other hand, Maggie Shipstead’s You Have A Friend in 10A mines in some way similar territory as Houellebecq, but makes it a little more interesting. Essentially, it is the story of a Katie Holmes like actress who is trying to survive the escape from a Scientology-like group. It is a dark picture of control, a story one knows or thinks one knows after passing the magazines at the checkout counter so many times. She had several rhetorical touches that made the story interesting and lifted it above the cringe worth stories of drugs and depravity that can come from this subject. Eric Puchner’s Little Monsters was a nice change of pace, telling a science fiction story of a race of young people who are manufactured and who kill any older adults who were created through sexual intercourse. It isn’t exactly a new idea, I know there is a Star Trek story along those lines, but he brought an impressionistic sensibility to what could have been cold science fiction. And as the two young characters learn to take care of a dying adult, the transformation doesn’t bring about a revolution but does cast the brutality of their lives into a new light. The best story of the fictions, though was Quintan Ana Wikswo’s The Little Kretshmar, a story about a couple learning to deal with their disabled son. What set the story apart is Wikswo strips the story down, removing all temporal and physical baggage so that it is just the actions or results of actions that exist.:

For now, the rings dangle on short strings around their necks. When they lean over the little Kretschmar, the rings swing and dangle. But the little Kretschmar cannot see them, nor can he grab at them. The rings swing in peace as the little Kretschmar rolls to the left, and then to the right.

It is all a reminder of the sauna, of Saturday, of sex and disgust and shame. He will no longer look at her rich, high breasts. She turns away when he unbuttons.

And they avert their eyes from the little Kretschmar when he cries, and tuck the rings inside their shirts.

The accumulation of the little pieces, almost devoid of emotion are more arresting, and do not weigh the story down with the extraneous details about time of day or the color of the sun.

The best piece of non fiction in the issue was Sonia Faleiro’s piece Leela, The Mumbai Bar Dancer. The opening is an excellent example of stretching the essay form. Faleiro starts off in what is third person but is really a playful first person between her and Leela, a kind of dance that Leela plays out with all her clients. It gives a great sense of Leela because it characterizes her, lets her act and speak on her own (even though this is just an illusion), instead of a description of her. She manages to capture more than just the working conditions, but a sense of Leela.

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.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler – A Review

The High Window
Raymond Chandler
Library of America, 1995

Chandler’s The High Window is shorter and less robust than his other novels, but it is one of the few that I have not seen in a movie version (one exists from 1944 but it isn’t considered a particularly good film). In theory that should make for a better reading experience. It has the usual collection of reprobates and self destructive lowlifes. Still, it feels a bit sanitized, as if the real dark side of LA had been overlooked. Sure there are the murders and the mysterious young woman who is kept as a virtual slave in the house of his Marlowe’s client, but there isn’t any tension to them. They just happen 1,2,3 and each time Marlowe goes back to his client, a port drinking shut-in, only to have her refuse to answer his questions. After all that back and forth, Marlowe explains what happened. It is not a particularly interesting way of doing things. Any work of mystery that has to have a lengthy explanation at the end of it to explain what happened is usually a failure. Chandler usually managed to avoid those failures. On the plus side, his depiction of the drunks on Bunker Hill has his typically dark clarity, as do all his depictions of alcoholics. And the young private eye that follows him around only to get killed is funny, if nothing else. As a work of Chandler, though, The High Window is a disappointment. In part because his client, stays in the shadows, both figuratively and literally and does not animate the novel the way Farewell, My Lovely or The Big Sleep. Without that interaction in the plot, something is missing. The High Window is, at best, an intermezzo between his better works, and one any person new to Chandler should not read first.