Obsessions, Ghosts, and Metaphors: A Q&A with Andrés Neuman

Article by mark

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Luis Angel Gomez

In a time when it’s popular to celebrate the writer’s “voice”—a body of work with similar techniques, themes and styles throughout—author Andrés Neuman gleefully ignores that trend under the belief that each book should be different (often gloriously so) from the book that came before. In a sense, THE THINGS WE DON’T DO is a microcosm of Neuman’s belief in not repeating oneself. THE THINGS WE DON’T DO is his first story collection translated into English and each story is so varied and unpredictable that by the end, one senses they’ve just read a masterclass in storytelling technique. So many avenues are taken, so many different styles and voices and approaches, that the collection’s multiple personalities are its personality. It feels like a tapestry of possibility—wholly singular, woven together by strands of fate, humor, relationships and history. These themes are separated in the collection by subtitles. The last section, titled BONUS TRACKS, does indeed feel like a bonus, akin to those hidden songs found at the end of CDs in the 1990’s. There is an exuberance and a confidence in these stories, a sense one is watching a great talent do what they love and were born to do.

Andres Neuman’s first two novels, TRAVELER OF THE CENTURY and TALKING TO OURSELVES, were both critically acclaimed and THE THINGS WE DON’T DO is another example of his incredible inventiveness. I was lucky enough to be able to interview Neuman by email.

Brazos Bookstore: Of your three books published in English, a reader would probably use the word unpredictable to describe you. It may seem like a criticism but it seems like something you strive for, even celebrate. Is that the case?

Andrés Neuman: I agree! But should I predictably nod my head…or perhaps deny it all just to carry on with the uncertainty? To be honest, a predictable book sounds a bit like a verbal routine. I think of literature rather as an enjoyable process of self-refutation. Maybe books are made to modify our expectations. I try to play the illusion that every work is the first one (regarding its learning process) and paradoxically the last one (regarding the desperation to write it). I suspect that we tend to mistake what we benevolently call a style for what the cultural market wouldn't mind to call a brand. In this sense, safety is probably the opposite of style. The literary coherence that I’m most interested in happens beyond our intentions. At the end of the day, we are a bunch of obsessions, ghosts and metaphors. That is the only thing one can’t renounce. So if there are any similarities among my books (and I'm sure there are plenty of them), I prefer for them to spring against my will, for they might constitute something closer to identity.

BB: I have enjoyed all three of your books (published in English) but THE THINGS WE DON’T DO is probably my favorite. There is an inventiveness and a confidence in the storytelling that is unmistakable. Were the stories written over a short period of time, or were the stories collected over different periods to make the collection?

The Things We Don't Do By Andrés Neuman, Nick Caistor (Translator), Lorenza Garcia (Translator) Cover Image
By Andrés Neuman, Nick Caistor (Translator), Lorenza Garcia (Translator)
ISBN: 9781940953182
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Open Letter - August 25th, 2015

AN: I’m glad you mention it because very frequently, we put novels before everything, and I similarly love writing novels, short stories, and poems. As for THE THINGS WE DON’T DO, the texts were written over more than a decade and belonged to different collections in Spanish. But, once I had all the stories selected and revised, I worked hard on them again as a whole, thinking of their potential links, recurrences, and contrasts. In the end I chose only those stories that were somehow able to set a dialogue, some kind of tension with the other ones. So the book is exactly in the border between a panoramic anthology and a single collection. We thought it might be an interesting experiment to do it that way.

BB: Identity is an important theme running through the stories in this collection. In the story “My False Name,” you trace the history of your family’s name—a victim of circumstance, fate, dislocation and even luck. Is it difficult to blend history with fiction so seamlessly, where the reader isn’t sure what is true and what is invented? Or does that come easily?

AN: Several of my ancestors, in different countries and circumstances, certainly saved their lives thanks to a change of name or some funny misunderstanding with it. My Jewish great-grandfather stole the passport of some German soldier to avoid the military service in Siberia, and ran away to Argentina. Half a century later, my father was exempted from Argentinian military service because he pretended to be some famous soccer player’s brother whose family name was the same. I like to think that they had to re-imagine their own identities in order to survive, just like storytellers of themselves. In other words, fiction can seriously modify what we call real life. That happens with books, countries and, well, great-grandparents.

BB: In the United States translation seems to be getting more and more attention (finally!). What hand, if any, do you have in your translations?

AN: I’m lucky enough to have a close relationship with my translators, who are very nice as well as (I’m afraid) patient folks. Translators usually know the books better than their authors. I’m in love with translation, including its challenging conflicts. I see it as the most perfect form of literature: it is the only way of reading and writing the same book. I do take part in the process as soon as my translators allow me to. I read their version once it is finished. We exchange a good number of comments, queries and opinions as if it was someone else’s book. And even more: whenever my translators find a solution or an English phrase that I actually like better than the original, I go back to it and render the translated version into my native Spanish. That way the author suddenly becomes the translator! In my opinion, every translated book is rather an original book, based on a previous one.

BB: Are there any contemporary authors you enjoy that you feel are doing new and exciting things?

AN: No doubt about it! Though sometimes what we call “new” can look actually old and vice versa. To avoid unending lists, I will focus mainly in poets from different languages. I love for instance the works of Charles Simic, Anne Carson, Louise Glück, Richard Gwyn, Ben Lerner, Xi Chuan, Yves Bonnefoy, Uljana Wolf, Nicanor Parra, Blanca Varela, Hugo Padeletti or Diana Bellessi, all of them healthily divergent. And the recently deceased Tomas Tranströmer and Wisława Szymborska, who will sound forever young to me. I can’t stop enjoying them, as well the short stories from Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Hebe Uhart or Samanta Schweblin…And I should stop here before getting slightly anxious.

Andrés Neuman will read at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday, September 15 at 7PM

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