Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman translated by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
This is a review of Talking To Ourselves, one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read in a long time. It was written in Spanish by Andrés Neuman and translated in English by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. This is also something of a meditation on the theory and practice of reviewing works in translation.
In this review I will not use the words “apt, capable, dexterous, nimble, able, faithful, etc.” to describe the translation at any time. My Spanish is like that of most Italian speakers, it sounds like a drunken night in Ibiza. I have never seen the Spanish version (yes, version, not original) of this novel because while perhaps I could make sense of the plot I would never be able to grasp the complexity of the characters, the themes or style Neuman surely masters. The structure of the novel, the story, and the heart I found in this book lead me to believe Neuman is in control of what he is doing and very good at that. I also trust Caistor and Garcia to bring me to those otherwise inaccessible places. Reading a translation requires great trust. Translators are giving you their reading of a text, this is unavoidable; I found myself willing and able to trust Caistor and Garcia for one main reason from the very beginning: the pure quality of their English prose.
Talking to Ourselves is a novel told in three voices: mother, father and son- Elena, Mario and Lito. They live in a Spanish speaking country, the style invokes a dry warm air, though it is never stated whether we are in Europe or the Americas. Each family member presents us with their own perspective during the last months of the father’s battle with terminal cancer. Each story is told in the third person with a distinct and compelling voice. Neuman demonstrates a deep understanding of loss and grief from three unique points of view. Caistor and Garcia render these three voices in English to a point that the characters become who they are once again, transformed and alive from the Spanish I imagine they inhabit in Neuman’s version.
Mario, the father, decides to take his son, Lito, on a journey because he knows they won’t have time when the boy is older. He is weak but they manage to have a good time together on the road. Mario reflects,
“I could see, Lito, that you didn’t want to, or to go to bed, or anything, and while I was waiting for the change I started looking around at the guys in the bar, some of them were real young, and suddenly it struck me I would never see you that way, at that age, leaning on a bar, and then I had, I don’t know, a sort of attack from the future and I thought: Well, if I can’t wait, then why not now, and I went over and asked if you wanted a drink, I swear I would have let you have anything, whisky, tequila, vodka, anything, and you ordered a Fanta, and it was fantastic, maybe this was why we made the trip, to have a Fanta in a motel with hookers, and then everything was worth it, until that disturbed man came over, that phony magician.”
They have made the trip to have an adventure together, but it cannot be perfect. A strange man is bothering them throughout their time in the bar. Mario wants to shove out all of the disruptive elements of the evening and create a memory for Lito that will last him long after his father is gone. Mario is busy thinking about the future where he is not present.
Talking to Ourselves, the title, takes its name from the honesty the novel presents us with. Each character is talking to him or herself, revealing even the ugliest parts of what losing a loved one is like. The characters admit the truest, least glamorous and most shameful senses of loss to the reader. In her first chapter, Elena says,
“No one talks about the rights of the caregiver. Another person’s illness makes us ill. And so I’m in that truck with them, even though I’ve stayed at home.”
The reader is suddenly allowed to admit the worst of her feelings. The same happens when Elena takes up with her lover, so full of life- somehow the reader doesn’t hate her but rather, understands her and sympathizes.
Another element of Elena’s character and voice is that she frequently discusses other works of literature, she finds in the voices of others a way to express herself. At one point she states,
“Writing about illness,” I underlined last night in an essay by Roberto Bolaño, “especially if one is seriously ill oneself, can be an ordeal. But it is also a liberating act,” I hope this applies to us caregivers too, “exercising the tyranny of illness,” this is something we never talk about, and it is true: the oppressed need to oppress, the threatened want to threaten, the sick yearn to disrupt the health of others, “it is a diabolical temptation,” we caregivers also have temptations, especially of the diabolical variety.”
By invoking Bolaño, Neuman is reiterating the translatability of his work. The literature interacts and speaks to other voices already, from the beginning.
In doing this Neuman places Talking to Ourselves in conversation with other stories about loss, but also other stories about journeys. Elena states,
“I wonder whether, perhaps without realizing it, we seek out the books we need to read. Or whether books themselves, which are intelligent entities, detect their readers and catch their eye. In the end, every book is the I Ching. You pick it up, open it, and there it is, there you are.”
I’ve heard something like this before, it is not an uncommon notion, but present in this book it means more. I picked up this book when I really needed it. I had read about it in an interview a friend and colleague had done with Andrés Neuman in The American Reader. I read this interview and knew this was the book for me and for dealing with the terrible loss I was living through.
Neuman and Caistor and Garcia illuminate a physical sense of loss in a way I had never seen prior to reading this novel. Visually it seems as though the words are separating as languidly as Orpheus and Eurydice. The words are expansive and offer space in their long breaths.
“When someone you slept with dies, you begin to doubt their body and yours. The once touched body withdraws from the hypothesis of a reencounter, it becomes unverifiable, may not have existed. Your own body loses substance. Your muscles fill with vapor, they don’t know what it was they were clutching. When someone with whom you have slept dies, you never sleep in the same way again. Your body doesn’t let itself go when it is in bed, your arms and legs open as though clinging to the rim of a well, trying not to fall in. It insists on waking up earlier, on making sure at least it possesses itself. When someone with whom you have slept dies, the caresses you gave their skin change direction, they go from relived presence to posthumous experience. There is a hint of salvation and a hint of violation about imagining that skin now. A posteriori necrophilia. The beauty that was once with us remains stuck to us. As does its fear. Its hurt.”
As Walter Benjamin makes clear in his essay “The Task of the Translator,” every work of literature has its chosen translator. In this case Caistor and Garcia met Neuman’s text right on time. Benjamin writes,
“Translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential for the works themselves that they be translated; it means, rather, that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability. It is evident that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original. Nonetheless, it does stand in the closest relationship to the original by virtue of the original’s translatability; in fact, this connection is all the closer since it is no longer of importance to the original. We may call this connection a natural one, or, more specifically, a vital one. Just as the manifestations of life are intimately connected with the phenomenon of life without being of importance to it, a translation issues from the original-not so much from its life as from its afterlife.”
Talking to Ourselves is a book in translation that is a metaphor itself for the ongoing translation each of us takes up as we read books and we process the world and attempt to make a life. A book in translation is separate from the original as Benjamin states, it goes on to lead a life of its own. It continues to proliferate meaning with or without the original version, just as each of us goes on to make meaning for ourselves after significant personal loss.
After Mario has died Elena comments,
“If death interrupts all dialogues, it is only natural to write posthumous letters. Letters to the one who isn’t there. Because he isn’t. So that he is. Maybe this is what all writing is.”
The conversation is ongoing, it can change even if no one writes back. Elena’s letters will still have life and they will still influence the relationship she had with her husband. Lito will not forget the night at the bar with his father. The relationship between life and afterlife is not closed and Elena and Lito will continue talking to themselves.