Last year I very much enjoyed Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century (my post here), which was in the running for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. It was a long book, rambling in just the right ways as we followed the characters around this strange city that moved around the map. I was thrilled to see that Neuman had a new book coming to us this year, a much shorter, by appearance much more serious, book: Talking to Ourselves (Hablar solos, 2012; tr. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, 2014).
The book is structured around three characters. The first we hear from is ten-year-old Lito, who is thrilled because his father and mother are finally allowing him to ride along with his father on a truck haul. Lito thinks it’s because, at ten, he’s finally become a man. So he and his father, Mario, say goodbye to Elena, his mother, jump in the truck, and set off on the road.
The next section is narrated by Elena. Right up front she says, “They’ve just left. I hope my son comes back happy. I already know my husband won’t be coming back.” She talks elusively about some secret, but it isn’t secret from us for long: Mario is dying, his body is already nearly unable to function, and this road trip is a now-or-never kind of thing.
Mario narrates the next section, recording some of his thoughts on an iPhone so his son can listen to them later on.
The book continues to alternate between these characters, though the chronology begins to warp. For example, in a later section narrated by Elena we know that Mario and Lito have made it back home safely (Mario is doing poorly, though), but when we get back to Mario, he’s still narrating from that trip, a ghost from the past.
Indeed, perhaps the book’s strength, from my perspective, is the way the narrative flow warps the passage of time. We’re subtly introduced to this in the first line, which is simply:
Then I start to sing, and my mouth gets bigger.
Beginning with “then” this sentence makes us wonder what this follows, and why weren’t we given that information first. As it happens, the very next paragraph jumps back from the present just a step to give us the context, but the feel of time as a revolving rather than linear process sticks as the characters deal Mario’s death, both its approach and its wake.
Neuman utilizes other techniques to explore death. For one, Elena is constantly reading death-haunted books, from John Banville’s The Sea to Flannery O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill” to Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill (among many others — a list of works cited is included at the end of the book). For me this part didn’t work. Frankly, those other books deal with death in unique, brilliant, better ways than I found here. Showing Elena confronting these texts is important to Elena’s character, but it came uncomfortably close (over the line, for me) to incorporation by reference, as if one can get the density and greatness of those works incorporated into one’s own simply by bringing them up with a few lines. These texts are presented in short bursts, further alienating them from the main narrative.
For some, these texts will also cause issue because Elena’s passages are already the most lengthy in the book, leaving Lito and Mario almost as side characters. Personally, I didn’t mind this. Elena is the most interesting character. Her struggle with the death of her husband is rendered more emotionally raw, even than her dying husband’s sections. I found Lito’s sections a bit trite, to be honest. Perhaps that I appreciated spending more time with Elena than with her husband and child suggests a weakness in Mario’s and Lito’s sections, though, rather than any particular strength in Elena’s.
Serious is definitely the word here. While Traveler of the Century dealt with serious issues, it was filled with whimsy and a genuine joie de vivre. he takes what he can get and considers excess and excretions signs of a life in the process of being well lived. The doctor inserts himself into a relationship with Elena, almost considering it his physician’s duty: provide comfort where one can. Strangely, this thread, in a novel ostensibly about communicating, whether with oneself or with someone else, is cut short.
Which brings up my central problem with this novel: it never feels like Neuman is diving into the hole he’s pointing to the rest of us. He employs a number of devices to bring communication to our minds: Lito listens to his father’s side of phone conversations with his mother; the iPhone blocks communication, as Lito plays games on it rather than text his mother, who cannot understand his curt text-speak anyway; the iPhone is Mario’s way of recording his conversation with himself; the books are Elena’s ways of communicating with others going through what she has; and the doctor “communicates” with his patients in any way he sees fit.
All of these are interesting pieces of a greater puzzle that never quite materializes. I do not mean I wish Neuman came to some grand conclusion. Such a conclusion would have felt manufactured. But given the book’s structural issues, I’d say the whole thing feels manufactured.