The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Neuman-The-Things-We-Dont-DoThe Things We Don’t Do
Andrés Neuman
Tran Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia
Open Letter, 2015, pg 190

When thinking about the short work of Andrés Neuman one word comes to me: joy. In all of his stories, no matter how dark or emotive, you see an author at work who loves the exploration of the power of the short story. In his meta fictions it is most obvious he is fascinated by language and story, but even when looking at the loss of a parent, or the hazing of young recruit, I find a belief in the power of  just a few pages to create fragments of a larger world that exists just at the edge of the page. If one is willing to engage in the search, the varied stories of this collection will show a writer who is both capable of literary invention and bringing out the power of the little moments his characters experience, both profound, brief, and, thankfully, absent edifying epiphanies. In Neuman’s hands, a short story is where one goes to work out a single idea, often quite short. The joy is in that search, the experience of being in the story and finding the same potential in it that he does.

The first story, Happiness, completely captures the joy in Andrés’ work. In it the narrator, Marcos, relates how he would like to be like Cristobal:

He is my friend; I was going to say my best friend, but I have to confess he is the only one.

At first it is an innocuous statement or friendship. But Marcos continues to describe how he envies Cristobal because he sleeps with his wife. From the story descends into the hapless monologue of a man who wants to take control of something he’ll never control. It is the kind of inversion of control that can show up in Neuman’s work, where the expected is reversed.

Happiness shows the reversal in a more overt and comedic way, where as Delivery takes a more lyric turn, following the alternating anguish and joy of a man right before his first child is born. He flies from idea to idea, never falling into sentimentality, yet finding in the coming a birth both a union with the new life, his and the child’s, and separation with his old one. Neuman deftly captures the anxiety and excitement at such a moment, and the translation deftly captures the wild exuberance of the one sentence that twists and double backs on itself, leaving the reader in a twisting labyrinth of emotion.

Included within are two stories that pay homage to Borges’ ideas. In one he describes a literary lecture by Borges where all the participants come dresses in gold clothing. The lecture itself is uninteresting and unimportant. What matters is that as a group they left an impression on Borges. The story is an echo of a Borges’ quote, I am going to cause a tiger,” and the story ends as the narrator notes that the audience caused a tiger. It’s a story that expands a Borges idea, both in the sense of a literary essay and the creation of the literary character, Borges. It is indicative of a fascination with the work of Borges and his interest in the writer himself.

The Poem -Translating Machine follows on another theme that you kind find in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. In the story, a poet tries to have one of his poems translated. The translation is a disaster, but instead of trying again, he asks a friend to translate the translation. Although the results are unimpressive and don’t match his work, he continues to pass the various translation on to other translators, going back and forth between the various languages. Eventually, a translator returns a poem to him that is just like his. While, Menard republishes the same thing and it is just the times that make it seem different, here it is the different approaches to language that shifts the meaning and brings out the fluidity of language, making both the point that translation is near impossible, and any writing, even in its original is open to many shifting meanings. It is one Neuman’s celebratory explorations of language and writing, one that makes it clear that he takes a great interest in how meaning shifts.

The Things We Don’t Do collects stories that have appeared in four Spanish language collections of short stories (links are to my reviews, and include descriptions of some of the stories included within): Hacerse el muerto, Alumbramiento, El ultimo minuto, and El que espera. (My one complaint with this collection is there is no indication which story came from which collection) It is divided into several sections, but follow the typical Neuman pattern: stories that are less meta, more interested in character and relationships; literary commentary that can explore a literary idea or just celebrate literature; and epigrams about writing short stories, which are a must read for any short story writer, even if you don’t agree with all of them. In The Things We Don’t Do, the weighting is towards the first type, but every type of story gets its due. My only other complaint is I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of Policial cubista (Cubist Police Officer), which is one of my favorite stories, but that is a small thing. The translation is sharp and well done. The only thing I took exception to was the use of the word “wimp” in Man Shot, instead of the stronger gay epithet that appears in the original and gives a deeper meaning to the story.

The Things We Don’t Do is an excellent introduction to the short stories of Andrés Neuman and will reward any reader with a delightful array of stories.

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Alumbramiento (Illumination) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Alumbramiento (Illumination)
Andrés Neuman
Páginas de Espuma, 2006 pg 166

Andrés Neuman is a dedicated explorer of the short story form, both as a writer and an editor. Alumbramiento, one of his earlier collections, shows him as a mature writer working through different approaches to the short story form, in terms of theme and structure. Those explorations, can wander between the literary, as in the section devoted to literature, to the more familiar territory of relationships between people. In no matter which area he is writing the stories take on playfulness and a humanity that never treats characters as something frivolous, no matter how esoteric the story is.

The collection is divided into four parts: Otros Hombres (Other Men), which looks at men and their relationships; Minituras (Minitures), which is a series of short monologues; Lecturas (Readings), which is about reading and literature; and, as in all his collections, aphorisms about writing (I hesitate to call them rules, more thought pieces). Alumbramiento, the first story of the collection, is, perhaps, Neuman’s most stream of conscious story, narrating a man’s thoughts on the birth of his child. The title in Spanish means both  birth and illumination, and it sets the tone for Otros Hombres section, showing men who are in the process confronting a change. For the narrator of Alumbramiento the change is both scary and exciting, and in Neuman’s hands he stretches what might be a rather obvious idea, into an exploration of the narrator’s life, that is at once affectionate and insightful.

Where, Alumbramiento is a nervous joy, Una raya en la arena (A Line in the Sand) shows the break down of a couple through what seems so insignificant: the challenge to not cross a line drawn in the sand between a couple. How the man and the woman interpret the meaning and importance of the line shapes whether the line is a permanent, fixed barrier, or a metaphor for a troubled couple. The argument as the couple works through the meanings of the line is subtle. Did the woman even mean for the line in the sand to be a true line in the sand, a point of no return? All of these ideas weave through the story and show Neuman as strong observer of human interaction.

La belleza (The Beauty) is a representative story from the miniatures section. In these brief page long monologues the narrators describe something fundamental about themselves and the world around them. For the narrator of La belleza she is cursed with a beauty that the whole world recognizes and uses to appraise her with. She is not a thinking being, but an image of the ideal and when she speaks those around her are shocked that she has anything to say. In an Neuman touch, at night she dreams of a world full of ugliness. Of course that world cannot exist and when she awakes she finds herself completely alone. While there are familiar tropes about stereotyping beauty, Neuman adds to this with her solitary life, as if there is a beauty that is too much, too frightful.

Finally, in the Lecturas section, Neuman explores and plays with the idea of reading and the reader. Here he shows his great fascination not with narrative, but the idea of narrative, how readers construct and make their own narratives. It is the most humoristic section of the book, finding in a story like Queneau asltaba ancianas (Queneau  Robs Seniors) a celebration of Queneau, but also a chance to laugh at the trials of the robber who becomes less and less powerful, as if they style of the story robs him of his power. It is one of Neuman’s characteristic interests: writing in the border between fiction and the experience of reading that fiction. It is that interplay that is not only on display in the Lecturas section, but informs many of his stories and makes them unique.

Many of these stories are now available form Open Letter Press and any one reading this would do well to get a copy.

Barbarismos (Barbarisms) by Andrés Neuman – A Review of his Alternate Dictionary

Barbarismos (Barbarisms)cubierta_NEUMAN_Barbarismos_imprenta
Andrés Neuman
Páginas de Espuma, 2014, pg.130

Anyone has followed this blog will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s work. He has an incredible range of impressive writing working in novels, short stories, short essays, and editorial work with the short story. (He writes poetry, but I’ve not read it.) To this list we can add Barbarismos his personal dictionary. In Spanish, the title refers to the linguistic concept of using a word incorrectly or include an expression from a foreign language in Spanish. From this starting ground he has created a dictionary of alternative definitions. Ambrose Bierce’s Devils Dictionary is the most obvious example to an English speaker, although Dr. Johnson’s dictionary with its love of opinionated definitions is a cousin. In these alternative definitions are humor, notes of satire, and the exploration of writing, all written with a subtly and insight that make the book a fascinating exercise.

With respect to his definitions about writing and literature, he tends to look at them as a process, both of finding yourself reflected in a work and creating the work as you interact with it. For Neuman there is a constant interplay between one who is working with a text, either in writing it or reading it, and the text itself. This interplay gives a mystery and elusiveness to a work. He’s not facile about this interplay, instead he sees in it a kind of epistemological relationship between an person and what they can know. At the same time, he sees it as a collective enterprise that has no leader, but is organic. His take on politics is humorous without being particularly caustic. Certainly there are jabs at patriotism and religion that go beyond the day to day frustrations of living in a democracy that doesn’t quite live up to its ideals. He’s at his best here when he takes down sacred cows, as he does with patriotism and his definition for flag.

Ultimately, Barbarismos succeeds as a book because Neuman’s way of finding the vital truth of a word is spot on, showing him to be an excellent observer and a clever writer. While he does play with words (see imán), many of his definitions I think would appeal to readers outside the English language. One would hope that some day a few more of these would appear in English.

bandera. Trapo de bajo coste y alto precio.
flag. Rag of low price and high cost.

búsqueda. Hallazgo casual de otra cosa.
search. Casual discovery of something else.

cuentista. Mentiroso que busca la verdad un poco más lejos.
storyteller. Liar that searches for the truth a little bit father out.

democracia. Ruina griega. || 2. ~ parlamentaria: oxímoron.
democracy. Greek ruin || Parliamentary democracy: oxymoron

escritura. Autobiografía colectiva.
writing. Collective autobiography.

imán. En el campo de la física, atracción fatal. || 2. En el campo religioso, ídem.
magnet/imam. In physics, fatal attraction.  || 2. In religion, the same.

izquierda. Ideología política que parece irreconocible hasta que gobierna la derecha. || 2. Sentido critico con tendencia a atentar contra si mismo.
left. Political ideology that seems unrecognizable until the right governs. || 2. Being a critic with the tendency to attack one’s self.

vacaciones. Acción de transitar por los mismos lugares a menor velocidad.
vacation. Act of passing through the same places at a slower pace.

 

El Pais had a review of the book with more definitions and definitions from 20 other Spanish authors

Andrés Neuman on Julio Cortázar

Andrés Neuman published an excellent article on Julio Cortázar in El Pais this week, one that is worth reading and shows his breath as a writer.

Los cuentos fantásticos de Cortázar han sido aislados en un canon restrictivo que tiende a traicionar la genuina variedad de su poética. Las piezas perfectas (uno de los epítetos más recurrentes en su prosa) al estilo de Continuidad de los parques, escritas durante los años cincuenta y sesenta, han eclipsado una extraordinaria periferia que, contradiciendo la opinión oficial, incluye su obra tardía. Pese a los sobreexplotados artefactos de inversión como Axolotl, muchos de sus cuentos memorables (La autopista del sur, Casa tomada) no condescienden al malabarismo estructural, ni concluyen en sorpresa. En otras palabras, la mayoría de los cuentos de Cortázar operan al margen de la simplificadora ecuación con que suele identificarse su narrativa breve, persiguiendo más bien lo que él alguna vez denominó “mecánicas no investigables”.

Un ejemplo de esas afueras es Queremos tanto a Glenda, del libro homónimo, legible como parábola de la reescritura, pero también de la censura autoritaria; se trata de un excelente cuento político, descargado de lastres panfletarios. Y sobre todo Diario para un cuento, del postrero Deshoras. En este texto final y sin embargo fundacional, Cortázar declara su intención de escribir “todo lo que no es de veras el cuento”, los alrededores de lo narrable: el contorno de un género. Quizá por eso repita la frase “no tiene nada que ver”, a modo de mantra digresivo. Para éxtasis del hermeneuta universitario, en este cuento se cita y traduce, acaso por primera vez en una obra de ficción latinoamericana, un fragmento de Derrida.

Andrés Neuman’s Newest Book: Barbarismos

This came out a few weeks ago, but I’ve been a little busy lately.

Andrés Neuman has a new book out in Spain called, Barbarismos (Barbarisms). It is a collection of humorous definitions of common words. Kind of reminds me of Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. You can read about it, get and excerpt, and see a video all at Paginas de Espuma, the publisher.

Here are a few samples (with my translation)

bandera. Trapo de bajo coste y alto precio.

flag. Rag of low price and high cost.

búsqueda. Hallazgo casual de otra cosa.

search. Casual discovery of something else.

cuentista. Mentiroso que busca la verdad un poco más lejos.

storyteller. Liar that searches for the truth a little bit father away.

democracia. Ruina griega. || 2. ~ parlamentaria: oxímoron.

democracy. Greek ruin || Member of parliament: oxymoron

escritura. Autobiografía colectiva.

writing. Collective autobiography.

 

Interview with Andrés Neuman at Revista de Letras

There is a short but interesting review with Andrés Neuman, a favorite of this blog, that is worth a read over at Revista de Letras:

Su primera novela, Bariloche (1999), publicada cuando contaba 22 años, fue finalista del premio Herralde. Con El viajero del siglo (2009), obra que obtuvo, entre otros, el Premio Alfaguara y el Premio de la Crítica, le llega el reconocimiento definitivo. Escritor en toda la extensión del término, Andrés Neuman figura entre los autores más versátiles de las lenguas hispanas, con más de 20 títulos publicados, entre poesía, cuento, novela y ensayo. Conversamos con él sobre géneros y creación literaria.

Me gustaría empezar la entrevista hablando de géneros. Salta a la vista que pareces hallarte igualmente cómodo escribiendo poesía, ensayo, cuento o novela. Has practicado, también, el aforismo, género poco habitual en las letras hispanas. ¿Cuál crees que pueda ser el motivo de contar con tan pocos autores en éste género?
Más que cómodo, al saltar de un género a otro intento quizá sentirme voluntariamente incómodo. O sea, en estado de tensión lingüística. No comparto la idea de dominar el oficio literario, si entendemos por ello la adquisición progresiva de una experiencia mediante la cual escribir sería cada vez más fácil. A mí escribir me parece algo cada vez más raro. Me siento literalmente un principiante: alguien enamorado del principio de la escritura, cuando es una mezcla de incertidumbre, entusiasmo y miedo. En ese sentido el aforismo parece un terreno particularmente propicio, porque pasa de la nada a la idea, del vacío a la música en una sola línea. Tiene algo abismal. Y te enfrenta de manera inmediata con tus errores y tu puntería. Es cierto que la tradición del aforismo ha abundado en otras culturas, más proclives quizás a la unión de poesía y pensamiento y, en definitiva, históricamente más ligadas a la Ilustración

Short Story “Una partida” from Andrés Neuman at Ojo Seco

Ojo Seco has an unpublished short story from Andrés Neuman (Spanish Only). It is short, but quite good.

Hacía casi diez años que mi amigo Riquelme y yo no nos veíamos. Nunca ha sido fácil coincidir. Él vive en Chile, yo en Andalucía. Él detesta los aviones, yo apenas tengo tiempo para viajes. Él es especialista en páncreas, a mí no me interesa la ciencia. Él tiene que hacer guardias todas las semanas, yo es raro el día que no tengo compromisos familiares. Él se mantiene soltero, yo tengo cuatro hijos. Pese a ser atractivo, o por culpa de serlo, a Riquelme le cuesta encontrar pareja estable. Yo (para qué engañarme a mi edad) soy tirando a feo, me gusta la vida casera y me intimida la selva del ocio nocturno. Él reaparece muy de vez en cuando en mi correo, yo no suelo llamar demasiado por teléfono…