Grief Like Environmental Disaster – Andrés Neuman, trans. Lorenzo Garcia & Nick Caistor, Talking to Ourselves

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One critique often made of postmodern fiction is that it lacks heart. As if by appealing to the brain and intellect of the reader, the visceral emotions are somehow overlooked; it is one academic making another academic smile wryly over a demitasse of espresso. However flawed or short-sighted that logic may be, the power to move people is, at least in the reviews one finds in the pages of the NYRB, TLS and LRB, an oft-overlooked skill in fiction writing. Well, literary-fiction writing anyway. In between crafting something that is formally interesting and in some way novel, the storyteller’s imperative to make the reader feel something can easily be forgotten. Not so in Talking to Ourselves.At fewer than 150 pages, the book is not a long one; however, it has a synecdochic quality in that its contents represent something larger. The novel begins in a familiar manner, with the 10-year-old Lito describing a journey he and his father, Mario, are making in a lorry. The work moves quickly on to the diary of Lito’s mother Elena, a teacher. It is through her elegiac scribblings that we learn that Mario has terminal cancer and that this last journey is his way of bequeathing the child something to remember him by. While on the road trip, Mario uses a Dictaphone to record messages for his son to listen to after his death, the transcripts of which make up every third chapter in the book.

The matter-of-fact voice of Lito calls to mind recent fiction’s manifold exercises in perspective, such as Emma Donoghue’sRoom or Juan Pablo Vilalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole. But where those other works persisted with the limited viewpoint of their young protagonists, Talking to Ourselves’ artful structure makes it all the more interesting. The interplay between the voices creates a Rashomon effect, where the three characters see events differently, providing the reader with only a slow drip of concrete facts to hold on to. The subjectivity and individuality of experience is clear for all to see.

Elena’s chapters – which make up the majority of the book – are where Neuman is really able to spread his wings. Through her we see the struggle of the mother and the soon-to-be widow, the effects of grief, and the profound imprint of loss. As befits a woman who had dreamt of being an academic and who “wrote short stories”, Elena often finds solace in books – many of which are written by contemporary or canonical Spanish- or English-language authors, and a bibliography of which is included at the end of the novel. They help her to understand her emotions, as she admits that: “When a book tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I were taking them back.” They also help her to reflect on writing itself: the talking to oneself that the title refers to. This focus on literature leads to inevitable metafictional curlicues, with Elena playfully noting that “some of these things are true”.

Elena’s writing is epigrammatic and elliptical, replete with gnomic and acerbic reflections on existential issues. Memory is described as “a delicate skin, skin has a short memory”; motherhood is written off as “a black hole”; “the family is a scavenging animal”. As she struggles to come to terms with the visible deliquescence of her husband, she embarks upon a fierce affair with his oncologist, Ezequiel, as she attempts to reconnect with the vitality she can see ebbing away from Mario. The sex is luridly detailed and Neuman’s depiction of female sexuality is both refreshing and jarring – uncomfortable for the reader given Elena’s guilt-ridden self-hate:

We women seem to like getting soiled. With discharge, blood, shit, anything Poor us, poor them. If I could choose, I would be a man. And I would never get soiled without asking why. 

This is not helped by the carnal Ezequiel, whose predilection for phrases like, “We have to be good in bed out of pure selfishness”, makes him sound very much like one of David Foster Wallace’s hideous men. The rawness of the writing and its subject matter brings to mind Everyman and other late-career Philip Roth novellas, where the two poles of death and sex are laid bare. Yet through the female protagonist and mass of citations, Neuman manages to add nuance and a distinctly scholarly angle to Roth’s righteous anger. When the inevitable arrives and Mario dies, one cannot help but be moved by his – and the family’s – plight. There is nothing forced in the tragedy of illness.

One of the few problems I had with the book was with the quality of its translation, which is something of a surprise given that the book’s translators, Nick Caistor and Lorenza García, have won prizes for their previous work. Their work is readable and precise, but it sticks too close to the Spanish for the voices to ring true in English. I understand the reasoning behind avoiding too liberal a translation, but I am of the opinion that the moment a text sounds unnatural or false, the translation is failing at its primary job. And this happens frequently in this slim volume. Firstly, there is a conspicuous mix of British English (“fizzy drinks”) and American English (“truck” and “ticked off”); and secondly there are a whole host of Spanish-isms like “infusion” instead of “herbal tea” (infusión in Spanish) or phone “coverage” instead of “signal” (cobertura in Spanish). And that is without getting into the odd-sounding calque-ish phrases that crop up in the book (“sharing a sincere doing nothing”, anyone?). Not having read the original Spanish, I am perhaps not in the best position to judge, but the inconsistencies were frequent enough to distract from Neuman’s otherwise excellent work.

But minor quibbles with translation aside, this is a formidable volume that explores how “grief spreads through memory like an environmental disaster”. Where classics of the past such as Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich explore death from the perspective of a dying man, Neuman’s novel explores “the excessive, unbearable disorder which the ugliness of another’s death creates in the midst of one’s own life” – and it manages to do so in fresh and exciting ways. The writing is cerebral enough to raise insightful questions about desire, death, reading and writing yet strikes upon a truth capable of moving the reader to tears. Tolstoy would have approved of that.

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