The Things We Don't Do by Andrés Neuman translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia Open Letter (2015) 190 pp
Andrés Neuman became an author-to-watch for me after I read his massive and delightful Traveler of the Century, his first book to appear in English (my review here), back in 2013. I was a bit disappointed in his next to appear; Talking to Ourselves was by contrast short and serious, and I had problems with its structure (my review here). That book set me back a bit, and though the book arrived at my home in the middle of 2015 I waited before delving into Neuman’s third English-language publication, The Things We Don’t Do, a collection of short stories. I’m happy to say that after reading The Things We Don’t Do, I cannot wait to read whatever we get next!
With The Things We Don’t Do I was brought back to one of the aspects I loved about Traveler of the Century: its linguistic and tonal playfulness that Neuman uses adroitly to tell serious stories . . . serious stories that are often premised on outlandish concepts. Neuman also gives us a big bang for the buck — there are 30 short stories in this 174 page collection (plus a “Bonus Track” giving us four dodecalogues that I’ll talk about a bit below).
The thirty stories here are organized under five thematic sections:
- The Things We Don’t Do
- Relatives and Strangers
- The Last Minute
- The Innocence Test
- End and Beginning of Lexis
In each, Neuman offers a diverse set of stories that relate to the theme in some way. For example, in “The Things We Don’t Do” we get one of my favorite stories, “How to Swim with Her,” about a young boy who finally gets the courage to swim out in the hard sea to a rock with a girl he and all of his friends have a crush on. Not only does this burst of unlikely courage fail to come to its natural conclusion (though the conclusion is quite shocking), but also if we look back at the thematic grouping the story gains an additional layer of intrigue and meaning.
That’s more what I mean when I talk about Neuman’s “playfulness.” Yes, we have a story where a man decides to go to work naked, but the stories are more concerned with the characters’ relationship to their own narrative. Another of my favorites, “Juan, José,” gives us two men, one is the analyst, the other is the patient; however, we do not know which is which as each thinks he is the analyst. The story is a series of post-session doctor’s notes from each. By messing with the characters’ own ideas of their own narratives, Neuman undermines the reader’s own narrative expectations in fitting ways.
As I mentioned above, this edition of the book ends with a further grouping of four dodecalogues under “Bonus Tracks: Dodecalogues from a Storyteller” in which Neuman offers his “rules.” For example, we sense why his stories are often sensual: “To narrate is to seduce: never completely satisfy the reader’s curiosity.” We see how careful he is at the sentence level: “Talent is rhythm. The most insidious problems begin with punctuation.” And we see that he is not beholden to his own rules: “A Decalogue is not set in stone, or necessarily applicable to others. A dodecalogue even less so.”
After reading his coda to this collection, I realized that Neuman is the rare storyteller who not only understands but also feels how to go about his job. He takes it seriously because it’s part of what keeps his own heart beating. I went back and admired his work even more.