Andres Neuman’s newest novel came out about a week ago. It is a departure from Traveler of the Century in that it is about three people: a dying man, the woman who takes care of him, and their son. In some ways it follows on some of the stories he wrote in Hacerse el muerto (read my review). In addition to the write up of the novel, this article also talks about his relationship with Roberto Bolaño.
Estas vivencias traumáticas han dirigido sus pasos hacia Hablar solos (Alfaguara). Una novela breve, concisa, rauda. Dolorosamente placentera. Fulminante como los pensamientos, desgranados en capítulos en primera persona, de sus tres protagonistas: el moribundo, su cuidadora y el hijo fruto del amor que han compartido y que se desvanece. Porque lo que logra Neuman, en última instancia, es una disección, urgente en las formas y trascendente en el fondo, del amor: de su enfermedad, de su tratamiento, de su agonía y pérdida.
En los orígenes de Hablar solos se encuentra también La muerte de Iván Ilich, de Tolstói. O, más bien, la voluntad de darle la vuelta a aquella narración. De convertir al expirante en objeto y traer a quien lo asiste a un primer plano. “En la road movie o el road book clásico se narra una experiencia masculina. Desde Ulises en la Odisea a Cormac McCarthy. Hay una exclusión, que ha atravesado todas las épocas, del rol de la mujer. Ese rol, como mucho, es el de Penélope: esperar al héroe. Es lo que tantas veces se les pide a las mujeres y a los personajes femeninos: que sean insoportablemente abnegados ”. Por eso, su protagonista femenina se convierte en una suerte de “Doctora Jekyll & Lady Hyde de los cuidadores, una madre preocupadísima por la seguridad de su hijo, una esposa totalmente leal y una cuidadora incansable que, al mismo tiempo, termina siendo una mujer infiel”
It has been a very busy summer this year and I haven’t been able to keep up with the literature this year. I’m just catching up with some of the interesting articles and blog posts out there. Here are a few that caught my eye recently. Most are in English. Enjoy.
A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro – from the Millions. Since this blog is often about short stories, this piece caught my eye. It is a good overview. Her influence is large in the English speaking world, but she is also often sited as an influence in the Spanish speaking world.
The New Yorker has published a short story from 1936. The Guardian some context for the story: not one of his best.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos at the Millions writes about the different reactions men and women have about Jack Kerouac.
Men’s disinterest in Austen and other female authors has, of course, been its own cause for consideration. Last year, in an article entitled “Men Need Only Read Books by Other Men, Esquire Post Suggests,” The Atlantic Wire rightly took issue with the fact that only one female author was listed in Esquire’s “75 Books Men Should Read.” However, guess which male author The Atlantic Wire specifically mentions, as if he is the driving force behind men’s exclusion of female writers: “hard-living, macho writers like…Jack Kerouac.” Interesting. I would have called him a life-affirming, sensitive author. It was Kerouac, after all, who wrote, “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”
Juan Gabriel Vásquez has a solid review of Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman in the Guardian. If you haven’t read about the book, perhaps this is the review to interest you in reading it. (You can always read my review here.)
Traveller of the Century doesn’t merely respect the reader’s intelligence: it sets out to worship it. An unusual talent is required to pull this off, and Neuman has it. Perhaps the awareness of dealing with an imaginary place has made him watch his world all the more closely, and with language so vivid and new you will find yourself reading as if you were rereading: for the pleasure of detail, imagery and style (all magnificently rendered by translators Nick Caistor and Lorenza García, who had a daunting task before them). Neuman, born in Argentina but raised in Andalusia, is a poet and aphorist as well as a fiction writer, and his virtuosity in the short distances does wonderful things to the long novel: the attention he pays to one of his main characters is the same he pays to the sound of an adjective while describing the wind, or a dog’s ears, or light.
La familia del aire: Entrevistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, 2011, 474 pg.
The Spanish short story writer Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s La familia del aire: Entravistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers) is an invaluable guide to the modern Spanish short story, and one of the best books I’ve read on the art of writing. Muñoz is an excellent and dedicated interviewer whose questions show a deep and thoughtful reading of each interviewee’s body of work. He sees interviews as not just another genre, but as an art unto itself and as he mentions in his introduction, he keeps collections of interviews in binders. He believes that letting an author talk about his or her work helps expand it, place it in a deeper context, rather than only letting the work speak for it self. It is this deep devotion to short stories and his ability to draw from the 37 included authors what makes short stories so compelling makes the book a must read for anyone interested in the short story. It is all the more impressive since all the interviews were conducted over a series of 3 or so years and published on his blog, El sindrome Chejov. In one of those great acts of personal fascination lived publicly, in 2006 Muñoz began to interview Spanish short story authors. What started quietly without any grand ambitions, morphed over the intervening years into one of the primary sources about authors working with the short story. Muñoz notes he was a little surprised by the willingness the authors agreed to interviews, but his dedication and preparation, which at the minimum includes reading each interviewee’s oeuvre, makes him a trustworthy interviewer, one that most writers would love to have. Muñoz also brings an sense of excitement to the short story. When reading his interviews (or his blog posts) it is easy to catch that same excitement—I should know, since every time I read one, I want to go out and read the author’s stories. The book is truly a one of a kind success that I wish existed for English language authors.
The only draw back of the book for my English language readers is that very few of these authors are available in English (certainly not the author’s fault). I have tried to remedy that with my recent article about unpublished Spanish Short story writers at the Quarterly Conversation. And when an author has been translated into English it is usually a novel. The most recognizable name in the book is probably Enrique Vila-Matas. Andrés Neuman, the last interview of the book and one of the better ones, also just had a novel come out in English (read my review here). That said, one of the most fascinating things about the book for an English speaker is to see what authors have influenced these authors. Given that English language authors may not be exposed to as many translations as they are in Europe, it might come as a surprise that two of the most common names that came up were Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Over and over in the list of influences these two always showed up. Some authors have turned to the English speaking authors as a refuge from the Spanish language traditions, but even when they cite Spanish language authors those two show up. I’m not so sure that would be the case for the reverse. Other English language authors mentioned were Poe, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Mansfield, Lorrie More and Alice Munro.
Spanish language influences tended to come mostly from Latin America. Cortazar was the most sited, the Onetti and Borges, and with a little less frequency Rulfo. There was a sense of disinterest in Spanish short authors from the middle of the century. The only two that were commonly cited were Juan Eduardo Zúñiga and Medardo Fraile. I think this is a function of one generation turning against another, something Andrés Neuman noted, saying that Spanish authors should take more pride in their own tradition with mid century authors like Ana Maria Matute. Only one author, Fancisco Afilado, though, really did not like the Latin Americans, especially Cortazar who he said led too may young writers to play games with their stories. Again, as a contrast to the American scene that notion of play is often lacking and too many write in the realistic vain. Afilado, naturally, is the author who loved the American realists the most, and is a perfect example of those who believe that noir is the best writing because it is the most real. I can’t say I agree with that, but it was refreshing and annoying at the same time to find one author in these interviews who has that opinion.
There were relatively few references to authors outside of the English and Spanish traditions. There were, of course, the trinity, Chekhov, Maupassant, and Kafka, but relatively few references to authors from any other languages (except perhaps Catalan). Only once did I see a reference to Thomas Bernard, for example. But given who rich both of these traditions are, there is quite a bit to mine in terms of influence.
With the exception of a few novelists, all the interviewees are dedicated to the art of the short story. As such, every interview has a question about the disrespect given to short stories in Spain. There were several theories all of which probably have some validity. My favorite was Carlos Castán’s theory that all the Christmas stories that come out ever year and which written by famous authors, turn readers away from the short story, because the stories are written by people who are not short story writers. I think the lack of critics who specialize in the short story, especially those at newspapers, is probably a better theory. The short story has the perception that it is just what you do between novels. Another mentioned that the public likes to engross themselves in a big story and don’t like the stopping and restarting that a collection of short stories entails. That may be the prescient commentary: it is one I sometimes feel when I am reading collections of short stories, especially ones larger than 200 pages.
Of course, things always look better across the water, and there were multiple references to the tradition of the short story in the US. However, I often feel that what they are looking at is a tradition that is from 30 years ago, if not father back. While major publishers do bring out collections of short stories, they are still a small fraction of published fiction. And while there are small magazines and journals like Tin House, the short story also lacks for prestige. Perhaps things are better here, but it certainly is not a paradise.
Ultimately, the book with its ample indexes, appendices of authors cited in the interviews, and a list of each author’s published works, short story or otherwise, is one of the best references to the short story I can think of. And as one might expect my list of authors that I’m interested in reading has grown. These are just a few that you may see on these pages some day: Mercedes Abad, José María Merino, Medardo Fraile, Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Iban Zaldua, Ángel Olgoso, among others. That, I think, is the highest praise for La familia del aire: Entravistas con cuentistas españoles.
Traveler of the Century
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 564 pg
El viajero del siglo
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.
The ever excellent blog El sindrome Chejov recently polled a series of Spanish language short story authors about what they thought were the best collections of short stories to be published over the last five years. It is a broad ranging list that includes authors English speakers would probably be familiar with, such as Alice Munro and Lydia Davis. Of interest to me were the books originally written in Spanish (I’m already sufficiently familiar with the English speakers). Some of these I’ve heard of and in a few cases I’ve even read some of the books. I certainly agree with some of the choices and am looking forward to finding some new authors.
The three most cited authors were Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Alice Munro and Ángel Olgoso. However, I saw many references to Javier Sáez de Ibarra, Andres Neuman’s Hacerse el muerto (read my review), and Smanta Schweblin’s Pajaros en la boca, a book that I am looking forward to reading soon. Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s list is of particular interest especially since he has read 250 collections over the last 5 years. I also thought Miguel Ángel Zapata’s was interesting because it listed the writers and their approaches which gives you a little context. Lest the embarrassment of riches make you think things are all rosy over there, Muñoz does end his survey with a complaint that could be easily leveled here in the states:
Buenos libros y buena labor editorial. Mejora sensible en la atención de los medios. …Y pocos lectores. En un país con desesperantes bajos índices de lectura -disfrazados por la atención mayoritaria a unos pocos libros populares- pero con una media de cuatro horas diarias ante la televisión, el cuento, que requiere de un predisposición particular y una educación del gusto para disfrutar de sus resortes narrativos, tan distintos a los de la novela, no puede salir bien parado. Aun así, sigo pensando que el cuento posee un poder que nuestro sistema educativo no ha sabido aprovechar. Aún. Confío en centenares de profesores de bachillerato que van descubriendo, y difundiendo, las posibilidades que el relato corto ofrece para introducir a los alumnos en el placer de la literatura y, todavía más, en el mejor conocimiento y explicación de materias distintas de las estrictamente literarias. Historia o Filosofía, para empezar (¿se sigue estudiando eso en Bachillerato?).
En la última década, el cuento español abandona las trincheras incómodas del gueto y comienza el lento acomodo en las mesas de novedades y en las reseñas de los diarios nacionales. Eso es un hecho; lento y a gotas, pero un hecho: llueve. Ya se ha apuntado muchas veces antes la labor encomiable y de zapa de editoriales especializadas en el género como Menoscuarto, Páginas de Espuma, Salto de Página, Tropo, Traspiés o Cuadernos del Vigía. Pero cabe anotar igualmente la proliferación de espacios en la blogosfera que promueven la expansión de los géneros breves y su rápida recepción por un público silente aunque masivo tras la pantalla del ordenador. En cuanto a las direcciones que asume el cuento actual, es precisamente la heterogeneidad de propuestas la clave para entender su auge: el terror contemporáneo entreverado de cierto apego a la sobriedad realista del cuento norteamericano en la obra de Jon Bilbao, la relectura del fantástico desde posiciones especulativas o metafísicas (en tres maestros del género en su estado más puro: Ángel Olgoso, Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel, Manuel Moyano), la experimentación formal en la renovación que parte del fantástico hacia territorios que lindan con lo telúrico (la portentosa cuentística de lo inaudito plausible que desarrolla David Roas), la orfebrería impresionista de altísimo octanaje literario (Óscar Esquivias, Jesús Ortega), lo cotidiano transfigurado (Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Andrés Neuman y Ernesto Calabuig, que hacen virtuosismo genuino de la lectura entre líneas y la fuerza emocional de las historias), el lirismo surreal (Juan Carlos Márquez en su estupendo “Llenad la tierra”, todo un despliegue talentoso de recursos y técnica)… Si a ello sumamos el trabajo de fondo de maestros contemporáneos que siguen trabajando el género aportando periódicamente nuevas obras de impronta clásica y generosos ejercicios de estilo (Merino, Calcedo, Aramburu, Díez, Aparicio, Fernández Cubas, Peri Rossi…), da la sensación de políptico generacional completo, de relevo asegurado y estupenda salud del género, como certifica el análisis que hizo del cuento en 2011 el artículo del crítico Ricardo Senabre para el último número del “El Cultural” el año pasado. Otra cosa, por supuesto, es la flexibilidad de mercado, distribuidores y librerías en el sostenimiento de títulos suficientes de un género que siempre supone un quebradero de cabeza para las editoriales que funcionan con la calculadora y la cuenta de resultados ante la mesa. Mientras siga chispeando…”
If you are interested in the short story, these 7 posts are worth skimming through.
The Argentina Independent has a list of five new Argentine novels that have come out in English recently. I have heard of two of the authors, Sergio Chejfec and César Aira and I am currently reading Andrés Neuman’s Viajero del siglo (Traveler of the Century). Hopefully, Ill finish it soon. It is enjoyable if a little long. A Full review will be forth coming. I trust the list will get peek your interests. (via)
Friends of Mine by Ángela Pradelli
For loyal readers of this series, Ángela Pradelli needs no introduction. An excerpt from her novel ‘Amigas Mías’, translated expertly by Andrea G. Labinger, helped us launch as our first installment a year ago. Now, after much anticipation, the full-length novel from which that excerpt was taken will be released in English from the Latin American Literary Review Press. Called ‘Friends of Mine’, and also translated by Labinger, the novel tells the story of a group of women living in the Buenos Aires province, who meet once a year on 30th December to eat dinner, celebrate the New Year, and reflect on the strange, difficult and wonderful passage of time. Structured in short, lucid fragments, the novel reads like a coming-of-age tale for a group of friends, a neighborhood, and an era of life in middle-class Argentina that has as much resonance today (and outside of Spanish) as it did when it was first published in 2002 and was awarded the Premio Emecé. Re-read our interview with Pradelli for more context, or peruse the sample we published last year. Then head over to the LALRP website to buy a copy for all your friends — after all, that’s what the novel is about.
The Islands by Carlos Gamerro
When we spoke to Carlos Gamerro last year, two of his acclaimed novels were in the process of being translated into English, both by his friend Ian Barnett (who also translated ‘The Peronist Princess’ by Marcelo Pitrola). Last year, the first of those books, ‘An Open Secret’ (Pushkin Press), was released to a critical consensus: The Economist — a publication not known for effluvient rhetoric — declared that Gamerro’s novel had “the makings of a classic,” and the Independent called it “haunting and disturbing.” This isn’t news to us; we’ve been enjoying Gamerro’s brand of darkly comic prose since we published his story ‘Bad Burgers’ in August. Now English-reading fans of his fiction will have another reason to cheer: this May, And Other Stories, a new British publishing concern, will release a translation of Gamerro’s first novel, ‘The Islands’. Like the spiralling narrator of ‘Bad Burgers,’ the protagonist of ‘The Islands’ chases his own trauma down a rabbit hole when he discovers that, despite the passage of ten years, the Falklands/Malvinas War is still raging — a reality he’s not quite ready to confront. Written with Gamerro’s trademark muscularity, we’re certain this new addition to the English-language cannon will only swell his growing fanbase. Head over to the And Other Stories site to pre-order a copy.
Hacerse el muerto
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.
Christmas always means books to me and this year, between what I bought myself and a few gifts, my to read stack grew nicely. I continue with my reading, or should I say study, of the Spanish short story. And since I like history but don’t read it enough I picked up a few interesting titles. I can’t wait to read start reading them.
I learned something in reading this collection: with certain exceptions, I find novel excerpts irritating. Either they are too short to say anything, or just when they get going they stop. I also relearned that my antipathy for best of youth collections seldom live up to the word best. That is unavoidable, of course, with any collection, but with youth comes promise and it is the let down that makes it worse. That said, of the works remaining works that I had left to read (see my review for the other authors), and those that I did not skip because they were novel excerpts and I’d rather just read the novel (this is especially the case with Zambra, Roncagaliolo, Oloixarac, and Navarro), I found some of these works readable, and occasionally intriguing, but on the whole uneven.
The Andrés Neuman short stories showed some real inventiveness and suggest he has quite a range as a short story writer. I should say, he was someone, who before I had read the stories, I was interested in reading. His work seems to have an expansiveness to its approaches and breaks out of of certain story telling traps. I did find, however, that the story about the nun was perhaps a bit cliched. Still his portrait of a nun who in having an affair with a womanizer, turns his world into a hell without her. It has that kind of religious story flipped that still leads to the same result. Instead of the man going to hell just by his acts, or realizing it through a sermon, the religious figure leads the man into hell. It has a touch of that Issac Babel’s story in the Red Calvary where Jesus sleeps with a woman on her wedding night, because if her wedding is not consummated, she will be killed.
Frederico Falco’s story about a girl who has a summer crush on a Mormon doing missionary work was perhaps the funniest story of the collection. In it Falco creates a precocious teenager who announces she is an atheist to her grandmother, who of course finds the thought horrifying. Shortly after two Mormon missionaries come to the door and she is taken with one. She invites them in for the first of many visits to talk over the Mormon faith. She thinks if she keeps bringing them along, fainting interest in the religion, she’ll have more time with the cute one. But every time she tries something she finds that the boys are too committed to the faith and that even simple gestures of friendship are filtered through the mission. It isn’t a tragic end, because she doesn’t care. She’s just using them, and the boys are so committed that they just move on to the next mission. It is a warm and yet distant story, that doesn’t so much as sympathize with the girl who is looking for a little fun, but toy with the irreconcilability of two such opposing points of view.
Sonia Hernández, much like Samanta Schwiblin and to some extent like Andres Neuman, belongs to the tradition of the fantastic or perhaps surreal that seems to surface often in Spanish language short stories. Her piece about a mysterious wall with a newly installed door, is probably the most allegorical of anything in the collection. At first it isn’t clear why the organization installed the door, or even why there is a wall. The only thing you know is that people complained about the noises from the other side. Is this a social comment about unwanted immigrants? But then the story takes a turn as the narrator says a friend of hers has left and this has caused the leadership of the building to get upset. The question becomes, is this some sort of prison and those on the other side are free? Hernandez, though, has more complications as the residents of the building are mute. They speak but no one can hear them. The missing friend, who is dead, has returned and is begging the narrator to go with her and keeps talking with her but is inaudible. Is this perhaps after all, some sort of purgatory, or just a closed society where the laws of existence are so defined you cannot act freely? Of course, each of those readings leads to tyranny against the individual. Either way, the story ends ill at ease, leaving little hope for the inhabitants of the building: …ese es el castigo a su soberbia (this is the punishment for her pride).
Structurally speaking, Rodrigo Hasbun’s short story that constructs a story through constant revisions of itself had potential. But like many of the works in the volume it tended to be interested too much in writing. The same thing happened with Patricio Pron’s short story which was obviously written for the collection and suffered for its cleaver nods to Granta. I’m certainly not above reading about writing or meta fiction (see my countless posts on Hipolito G. Navarro), but the pieces in hear often seemed to be afflicted with the young writers syndrome, where the only thing the writer knows is writing so they write about writing. I once took a class where we had to write a novella in one quarter. We all accomplished the task, but the majority of the works were about either writers or some other type of artist. I wrote about a guitarist, since I also play guitar. And reading these pieces reminded me about that class which as far as I know didn’t produce any great works.
Those inconsistencies in the works are why the collection was quite uneven. Having read it, I would like to ask the editor how she picked these authors. Since, really, the collection is a reflection of the editor as much as anything. The focus on youth I think is a little misplaced sometimes. The Guadalajara book fair’s focus on unknown writers seems a little more productive.
Andrés Neuman’s publisher Paginas de Espuma has put together two readings of stories from his new collection of short stories. In each of these he narrates the stories. The first is a bit more produced, but both are interesting.
Andrés Neuman was interviewed in La Vanguardia this week. It is one of the more interesting interviews I’ve seen about his new book and asks some good questions about how he sees himself as a short story writer.
Pese a su sempiterno aspecto de estudiante de facultad de Humanidades, Andrés Neuman (Buenos Aires, 1977) es uno de los grandes de la literatura española. Presente en todas las listas que escogen a los mejores narradores menores de 40 años (Bogotá 39, Granta), ganador del premio de la crítica 2010 por su novela El viajero del siglo, ha demostrado que se atreve con todos los géneros y formatos (novelas largas y cortas, cuentos y microcuentos, poesía y ensayo, traducciones y blogs), como si fuera un decatleta de la literatura aunque él prefiere calificarse, simplemente, de “culo inquieto, porque para atleta me faltan músculos”. Residente en Granada, hijo de una violinista y un oboísta, el incansable Neuman, tan argentino como español, ofrece ahora Hacerse el muerto (Páginas de Espuma), en apariencia un inofensivo libro de relatos.
La estructura temática (y formal) hace pensar en una idea previa de libro unitario. ¿Es así? Me gustan los libros con un concepto de fondo, siempre que ese concepto sea el fruto de una búsqueda, y no de un propósito inicial. Pienso que improvisando, si hay suerte, puede llegarse a una idea. Cumpliendo un plan se llega, como mucho, a un prejuicio.
Aborda usted la muerte empezando por una broma macabra y acabando por algo que pocos se atreven a hacer: pedir perdón a sus enemigos. Los primeros textos proponen distintas aproximaciones a la muerte: históricas, oníricas, humorísticas, familiares…. Como un catálogo de preguntas acerca de nuestra desaparición. Es curioso que tengamos tantas dudas ante nuestra única certeza. El personaje de un cuento ha perdido a su pareja y piensa: si ya no tengo amor, ¿de qué me sirve el odio? Pero sus buenas intenciones se tuercen.
Aunque parezca mentira, El fusilado está basado en un hecho real, ¿no? Un hecho real con forma de pesadilla. El protagonista recuerda a Daniel Moyano, narrador argentino, que sufrió un simulacro de fusilamiento, tortura muy del gusto de la dictadura patria y también de la guerra civil española. Más allá de la denuncia obvia de aquella atrocidad, lo que a mí me interesaba era preguntarme: ¿en qué estado queda alguien que creyó parpadear por última vez y sigue viviendo? ¿Qué clase de conciencia póstuma le queda?
And for a bonus El Pais has another review of the book.
The magazine Cuentos para el andén (Stories for the bus stop) just released its first issue. In it are stories from Andrés Neuman’ newest book, Ángel Zapata and José María Merino. It looks like a nice idea to have a couple brief stories come out every month. I don’t think any of the stories are more than 4000 words, which is perfect for the bus stop. Also included is a short story from José María Merino who is a graduate of a writing program. I’m quite cruious to see what the story is like given the criticism that is often leveled at writing programs in the US.
Andrés Neuman has been popping up in many different media outlets in Spain while he promotes his newest book Hacerse el muerto. Two of the more interesting interviews have been on Canal-l and El País. The Canal-l interview, of course, talks about his new book and what it is about. All the stories have something to do with death, but range in tone from the fantastic to one about the death of his mother at a young age. Then they go on to talk about Borges and how in his time he wasn’t part of the vanguard, especially in stylistic terms, and over time he has been recognized as the vanguard. Neuman posits the same will happen to this era where writers are blending genres such as the essay, the short story, and the novel, which eventually grow tiresome to a new generation of writers.
From El País is this interview which focuses quite a bit on what interests him in writing. (via)
Es como una contradicción permanente ¿La frase en sí “hacerse el muerto” implica una gran dualidad?
Yo me contradigo muchísimo, la contradicción es algo inevitable y la contradicción no es lo mismo para nada que la tibieza o la incapacidad de comprometerse con una emoción , si no que muchas veces como dice Borges, en un cuento que me gusta mucho, que se llama El tema del traidor y del héroe, “no era un traidor, sino un hombre desgarrado por sucesivas y opuestas lealtades”; el caso es que nada que es gracioso deja en, algún momento, de resultar siniestro y ninguna tristeza deja de tener algún golpe de risa. Es muy difícil profundizar en la emoción sin que te encuentres con su opuesto y nuestra vida cada vez más tiene que ver con esto; la capacidad de pasar de la alegría a la depresión se Ha disparado en la actualidad y en los géneros especialmente breves, y por tanto de estructura interna nerviosa, como es un libro de cuentos breves, sobre todo, porque en ellos algo está comenzando a cada rato; se presta de manera particular a este cambio de estado de ánimo que puede formar una idea estructural.
A qué orden te refieres cuando en el Dodecálogo cuarto cuando hablas de que es una época de desordenar el orden
Es una observación acerca de la estructura del relato breve, la teoría del cuento siempre ha sido como excesivamente tradicionalista en ocasiones, hay como dos o tres lugares comunes que se repiten a la hora de explicar su estructura: que el cuento es un mecanismo de relojería, que el cuento es una cosa redonda y perfecta, que el cuento te sorprende al final; y con esas dos o tres frases parece como que pudiéramos abarcar toda la teoría pero no es así porque hay millones de cuentos que incumplen esas normas, entonces esta expresión se relaciona con otra también presente en el Tercer dodecálogo de un cuentista que dice: “Al cuento lo persigue su estructura. Por eso, cada cierto tiempo, conviene dinamitarla”, con todo amor. Por tanto creo que el cuento tiene, por un lado, como una tentación clásica, ordenada y perfecta y por eso es muy importante que la otra mitad del cuento tienda al desorden, al caos, a la dispersión. Yo veo la historia del cuento como un combate entre el paradigma esférico y el paradigma caótico y para que el cuento esté fresco es necesario que esas dos fuerzas empaten, que haya un deseo de estructurar el cuento y un deseo de desordenar esa estructura.
And from El Pais another interveiw/profile about his newest book (Via):
Neuman lleva jugando a los equilibrios con ellos siete años. El tiempo durante el que ha ido incluyendo y descartando piezas en este artefacto tragicómico compuesto de enormes emociones y cortas transiciones. Pero lo hizo sin tener tampoco muy claro a dónde le conducía la pendiente del libro. Aunque fuera breve. “Es que me parece opresor pedirle a un libro de cuentos que el escritor sepa de antemano que va a escribir 12 relatos sobre, por ejemplo, ciclistas en Praga. ¿Y si se me ocurre algo sobre un ciclista en La Paz? ¿Qué hago entonces? Hay una cierta energía que queda reprimida con un punto de partida”. Ya, bien… en el libro se entiende. Pero en un relato corto, con tan poco margen de maniobra, ¿puede el escritor dejarse llevar por la historia o hay que salir a jugar con un plan muy concreto? “Para nada. Más corta es la poesía y no tiene problemas para navegar a su antojo. Podríamos sostener lo contrario, avanzar durante 200 páginas sin un plan es abusar del lector. En un número pequeño de páginas se puede llegar a crear una voz; una canción improvisada puede ser una maravilla, pero una sinfonía sería un horror”.
The book trailer/short story for Andrés Neuman’s collection of stories Hacerse muerto is available. In it one of his stories from the book, El fsilado is read and not so much dramatized as expressed. (via)
Andrés Neuman, one of the Granta youngsters and one of the few short story writers in the collection, has a new book of short stories coming out in October 2011 from Paginas de Espuma. I can’t say I know much about it, but I did find his stories interesting in the Granta book.
Una silla esperando a alguien que no llega. Un zapato con memoria. Una madre que corre en sueños. Una pareja enamorada de lo que no hace. Un psiquiatra atendido por su paciente. Una moneda volando en un hospital. Una mujer que se excita con Platón. Dos ensayistas en el baño. Un político perseguido por revolucionarios invisibles. Un asesino cubista. Un mundo donde los libros se borran. Un fusilado que piensa. Monólogos. Mirones. Todo esto, y más, vive en Hacerse el muerto.
En estos nuevos cuentos, Neuman explora el registro tragicómico hasta las últimas consecuencias, desplazándose de lo conmovedor a lo absurdo, del dolor de la muerte al más agudo sentido del humor. Breves piezas que buscan, simultáneamente, la emoción y la experimentación. Un trabajo atrevido con el estilo, la voz y la temporalidad. Una impactante serie de reflexiones sobre la pérdida como manera lúcida de intensificar la vida, de interpretar nuestra asombrada fugacidad.
La Nacion has an article about the new works coming from Andrés Neuman in the next year. He will be publishing a book of stories with the publisher Paginas de Espuma. He will also be publishing a book of poetry and a novel some time in the near future. If you can’t wait for those works you can always read his micro stories on his blog.
A fin de año, la editorial española Páginas de Espuma publicará su libro de cuentos Hacerse el muerto, que en 2012 editará en la Argentina el sello La Compañía. “Los relatos exploran el registro tragicómico y van del dolor de la muerte al sentido del humor, del miedo a la ironía”, cuenta Neuman, ocupado por estos días en la corrección de los textos. En octubre, Ediciones del Dock publicará su libro de poesía No sé por qué. “Será la primera vez que me editen en el país antes que en España, donde vivo desde niño. Es una emoción doble, porque mi poesía jamás había circulado en la Argentina”, dice.
Desde hace ya un tiempo, escribe una novela sobre la enfermedad y sus efectos en la sexualidad y en la lectura, en la forma de leer y de desear. Neuman asegura que esta nueva producción literaria será distinta: “Una de mis pocas premisas de escritura es evitar los moldes, la fórmula. Me defrauda que los libros de un autor se parezcan demasiado entre sí. Trato de alejarme todo lo posible de la experiencia previa”. Mientras que la acción de la novela anterior estaba localizada en el norte de Europa, en épocas pasadas, la de la nueva transcurre en la actualidad, en un lugar indefinido donde se habla castellano y que parece hallarse en una frontera imposible entre América latina y España.
La Verdad has an article about the state of the short story in Spain. It quotes critics such as Sergi Bellver who I have mentioned before. Essentially, the short story has the same problems it does in the US: low readership, publishers who prefer novels, and not good way to support yourself while writing them. Not an unknown phenomenon. At least they have the new short story prize with the € 50,000 prize and all the prizes from little towns and clubs that help keep writers going, as it did for Bolaño. The article talks about various projects by editors to publish short story collections.
Also the article mentions a few names worth following that I have mentioned many times in this blog:
Un punto que destaca Casamayor es que esta hornada de autores jóvenes y no tan jóvenes no reniegan de su condición de cuentistas sino que se sienten «orgullosos» de serlo. El editor de Páginas de Espuma cita tres nombres como figuras a las que seguir en el universo del cuento. Uno, Hipólito G. Navarro, publica en su editorial y su ‘El pez volador’ ha concitado muy buenas críticas. El segundo, Eloy Tizón, es profesor en la escuela madrileña Hotel Kafka y autor habitual de Anagrama. El tercero que destaca Casamayor es Andrés Neuman, conocido por obras de ‘largo aliento’ como ‘El viajero del siglo’, pero que ha hecho una importante contribución a la buena salud actual del género corto. Como creador, pero también como director de la colección, antes citada, ‘Pequeñas Resistencias 5’.
Otro nombre que comienza a hacer ruido es el de Matías Candeira, presente en la selección de ‘Chéjov comentado’ y que, pese a su juventud (nació en 1984) está demostrando maneras. Se estrenó en el año 2009 con ‘La soledad de los ventrílocuos’ y acaba de publicar ‘Antes de las jirafas’, un conjunto de relatos que huye de lo solemne. José Luis Pereira, responsable de la librería madrileña Tres Rosas Amarillas, la única de España dedicada en exclusiva al cuento, reconoce su talento.
Los nombres son muchos más: Jon Bilbao, Carlos Castán, Esther García Llovet o Víctor García Antón, Patricio Pron, Norberto Luis Romero, Sergi Pàmies, venerado por Enrique Vila-Matas, y todos los que vendrán.