Thursday 3 October 2013

'Bariloche' by Andrés Neuman (Review)

As you may have noticed, I've read a lot of tricky books in my time (many this year alone), so why is today's book, a 150-page first novel, one of the most difficult I've ever read?  Well, there's a simple answer to that - there's a lot that's lost in translation...

Bariloche is the first novel of Argentine-Spanish writer Andrés Neuman, he of Traveller of the Century fame.  It's a much shorter and simpler book than his IFFP-shortlisted work though, and is centred on the life of Demetrio Roja, a rubbish collector in Buenos Aires.  Every day, he goes to the depot where he and his work partner cruise the empty streets of the Argentine capital, removing unsightly rubbish before the rest of the city starts its day.

However, back home, we see a different side of Demetrio.  In a stark, semi-vacant apartment, he sits and occupies himself with jigsaw puzzles.  Not just any puzzle will do; they all have pictures showing the lake, forests and mountains of Bariloche, a small rural town on the other side of Argentina.  You see, Demetrio is not a native of the big city, and in his lonely apartment, he pines for the home of his youth - and a woman he once knew:
"Era lindísima y mayor que yo.  Se vestía como los hombres del lugar, escondiendo el cuerpo lo más que podía.  No vivía lejos, pero para mí ese trecho de tierra y a veces de barro era toda una ceremonia, una distancia que no podía recorrerse así nomás."
p.32 (Anagrama, 2009)

"She was very beautiful, and out of my reach.  She dressed like the local men, covering her body as best she could.  She didn't live far away, but for me this stretch of land and, at times, mud was a complete ritual, a distance which I could never cross." (my poor translation...)
As you may have guessed, Demetrio is not a very happy man...

Bariloche consists of sixty-five short chapters, several lasting less than a page, while the penultimate chapter, the longest in the book, only runs for six pages.  Initially, these scenes of urban life are merely snap-shots of Demetrio's daily routine, but as the novel progresses, we are treated to more glimpses of his life before his arrival in Buenos Aires, in particular, of a relationship he has which ends abruptly.

While the scenes in the mountains are sunny and filled with languid happiness, the chapters in the capital mostly happen in the dark, in the midst of the refuse of the big city.  There's an obvious contrast between the purity and innocence of Demetrio's youth and his life in Buenos Aires, and this contrast isn't limited to his physical surroundings - life in BA also seems to have corrupted his morals.  His young love was innocent, if forbidden:
"Nos besamos in ese momento y después no importó nada aparte de sus manos y las mías." (p.61)

"We kissed at that moment, and afterwards nothing mattered except her hands and mine."
Back in the big city, however, Demetrio's female affairs are less simple, as he is sleeping with the one woman he really should have left well alone...

The two strands, past and present, intertwine to create a fuller picture of a man whose life is going nowhere.  Trapped in memories, many of them pasted onto cardboard and carefully cut into small pieces, Demetrio is stuck in a rut he's unlikely to climb out of any time soon.  Work is simply a chore, and his love life is a dead end waiting to smother him alive.  Still, in his mind (and on his kitchen table), he'll always have Bariloche...

The observant among you (i.e. those who have actually read the post carefully) will have realised by now that it wasn't the book that was difficult but the fact that I was reading it in the original Spanish.  Sadly, Traveller of the Century is, at this point, the only one of Neuman's books to have appeared in English, and having read it twice and loved it - and having caught up with the writer at the Melbourne Writers Festival -, I was keen to try another one.

How?  Well, I have studied Spanish before (two years at GCSE level while doing my A-Levels), and the similarity with French, another of my languages, helps a lot.  In essence though, it was me and my hazy memory of the language (with a little help from Google Translate) against an authentic literary text - I staggered through twelve rounds, but I got a hell of a beating ;)

If I'm being honest, it would be hard for anyone to take my review at face value as I did struggle with the book at times.  The first few days saw me read about seven pages at a time, with constant stops to look words up, and I really thought I had bitten off more than I could chew...  However, I slowly got the hang of things, and my long-term memory kicked in, allowing me to double that by the end of my two weeks of reading.  While there were still words I didn't know, I opted for fluency over complete comprehension where possible, especially if I sensed that not knowing a certain word was unlikely to affect the flow of the story.

I did get a lot out of Bariloche, especially when contrasting it with Traveller of the Century, as it allowed me to compare the two books and draw out some parallels with, perhaps seeds of, the later, longer novel.  Demetrio's illicit affair has shades of Hans' relationship with Sophie, and an old homeless man the rubbish collector befriends may well be a literary ancestor of the Organ Grinder.  The care taken when describing the streets of Buenos Aires (and the beauty of Bariloche) is also repeated in Neuman's later description of Wandernburg.  Finally, the picture of Demetrio poring over his jigsaw puzzles in a grotty bachelor pad evokes images of Hans sitting in his room at the inn, dictionary in hand, working away at his translations (which, in turn, is uncannily close to the image of Tony turning frequently from book to i-Pad in a desperate attempt to make sense of it all...).

What it lacks though, is the sparkling conversation and warmth that pervades Traveller of the Century.  One of the features of the latter book is the way in which it exudes life and laughter, with Hans and Sophie knowing full well that they won't be able to enjoy themselves forever, but giving it their best shot anyway.  In contrast, Demetrio is taciturn and isolated, a man who's lost even before he's started the game.  Mind you, it's just as well that the writer skimped on the dialogue in Bariloche; whenever the characters did start talking, I really struggled to understand a word of what they were saying...

For a native (or skilled) reader of Spanish, this is a book to be knocked off in a couple of days - it took me about two weeks ;)  Still, it was definitely worth the effort, and I did enjoy it, even if it never reached the heights of Traveller of the Century.  One thing is for sure though; with Pushkin Press' translation of Neuman's Hablar solos only about six months away, I think I'll just wait for the translation next time :)