Thursday, 20 February 2014

'Talking to Ourselves' by Andrés Neuman (Review)

After the huge success of Traveller of the Century, many readers have been waiting anxiously for Andrés Neuman's next work to appear in English - and I certainly count myself among that number.  Perversely though, with such a huge weight of expectation (and having met the writer last year in Melbourne), I've found this is a review which isn't that easy to write.

The keyword here is objectivity - and to imagine that I'm talking to myself...

Talking to Ourselves (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) is a short novel in three voices, which together reveal the story of how a family deals with terminal illness.  Mario, suffering from an unnamed disease, uses a short grace period of relatively good health to take his ten-year-old son, Lito, on a trip in his truck, his attempt to give his son one last, happy memory of their time together.  Meanwhile, back at home, Mario's wife Elena, physically and mentally exhausted from caring for her husband, sits around and worries - until she finds a way to cope.

After a visit to her husband's doctor, hoping to break through his professional reserve and learn the truth about Mario's prospects, Elena allows herself to become involved in an affair, a brief, physical, charged relationship.  As she details her thoughts in her diary, she struggles to understand what's going on, why she's turning her back on Mario in his final days.  The only place she can search for the answers is in books, scouring her library for any mention of death and illness.  In the end though, the truth is very clear - we all go through this alone...

Talking to Ourselves is an excellent exploration of what it means to live with the knowledge of imminent death, and the way in which we avoid discussing the thoughts constantly circling around in our minds.  By splitting his story into three alternating sections, each told in the first person by one of the family members, Neuman allows each of the main characters a say, all three having their own clear, unique voice (a credit to both the writer and the translators).  While conversations are described in each of the sections, Mario, Elena and Lito are talking very much to themselves - occasionally at cross purposes.

Lito's part is, for obvious reasons, the slightest.  Unaware of his father's illness, he's simply thrilled to be going on a journey he's been looking forward to for a long time, a trip he's likely to remember for the rest of his life.  The writer paints a picture of a boy whose thinking hasn't quite reached the level necessary to cope with his father's illness - he still thinks he can control the weather with his moods and that life is like a rally game (a crash just means you lose time...).

His simple, naive descriptions of the trip are complemented by Mario's story, a digital recording he makes when in the hospital after the trip, waiting for death to catch up with him:
"...will those mp thingamajigs still exist?, or will iPods seem as old-fashioned to your kids as my record player?, formats disappear just like people..."
p.33 (Pushkin Press, 2014)
In a quick, yet rambling monologue, he leaves an oral record to be given to his son at a later date, explaining what really happened on the trip - why they had to take so many toilet breaks, why they slept in the truck, why he hurried Lito out of a bar so quickly...

Of the three family members though, the key to Talking to Ourselves lies with Elena.  The brief respite offered by the trip allows her to think about matters in more depth, which is not necessarily a good thing:
"If Mario accepted the limits of his strength, we would have told all our friends the truth.  He prefers us to be secretive.  Discreet, he calls it.  A patient's rights go unquestioned.  No one talks about the rights of the carer.  Another person's illness makes us ill.  And so I'm in that truck with them, even though I've stayed at home." (p.17)
Elena is obviously drained by caring for her husband, and Neuman examines her emotional instability by allowing the reader to follow her through her relationship with the doctor.

Initially, there's a wall of professionalism between Elena and Dr. Escalante, one which actually frustrates her:
"The cautiousness of doctors irritates me.  Conversing with them is like talking on a phone without any coverage.  In other words, like listening to yourself speak." (p.20)
However, once the ice is broken, it's as if a torrent is bursting through a tiny hole in a dam, thrusting her into a relationship she doesn't know how to handle.  It's a graphic, physical affair, similar to that of Hans and Sophie in Traveller of the Century, but far darker and more twisted; where the two translators are celebrating their bodies in the name of life, Elena and Escalante are merely trying to forget death...

While frank about her motivations and guilt, in her attempts to get to the bottom of her actions Elena does shift some of the blame onto her husband, especially regarding his inability and unwillingness to accept his fate and let his family know about his illness:
"By avoiding the subject of his death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little." (p.49)
Of course, she is no better than her husband in this regard - her thoughts, elegantly set down in her diary, are, just like Mario's words, meant purely for herself.

And this is what the reader is left with at the end of the novel, the feeling that much has been lost in a lack of communication.  Despite appearing to be a close, loving family, each person has their own thoughts and prefers to keep them secret, hidden away inside - together but alone, trapped in their own emotions.  It's honest, but brutally so, and it leaves you with an uneasy sense that this is how it could be for us too.  Something to ponder in a quiet moment alone...

Objectivity.  Hmm.

I could (and perhaps should) leave it there - this has already blown out enough.  However, I'm not a paid reviewer, I'm a blogger, and blogging is all about subjectivity, giving people my opinions and feelings, and I don't think they're amazingly clear from what I've written above.  The truth is that when I first read Talking to Ourselves, I thought it was an excellent, thought-provoking book with three distinct voices, a novel I enjoyed immensely.  But I didn't love it.  So I had to find out why...

The reason, which I suspected on the first reading but confirmed after rereading, is all to do with subjectivity (i.e. my preferences as a reader).  You see, as mentioned above, the key to the book is Elena and the way in which her experiences as a carer have ground her down, leaving her open for the relationship she enters into with the good doctor.  However, the moment she sleeps with him, she loses my good will, and this prevents me from enjoying the novel completely.

Why does this affect my enjoyment so much?  Well, it's just the way I am.  Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, to name just two examples, are other books where I feel that the writer is expecting me to sympathise with a woman who betrays her husband, and while in each case I can see what drove her to infidelity, I can never quite bring myself to sympathise or empathise with her actions.  Most readers will be able to enjoy Elena's thoughts despite this, but for me her actions cast a very long shadow over her words.

I also thought it would be interesting to imagine what would happen if the characters in the book were (to use an in-vogue expression) 'gender-flipped'.  Let's imagine a story where a terminally-ill woman takes her daughter on one last trip, while the husband stays at home and throws himself into a sadomasochistic affair with his wife's doctor.  I really can't see that one winning over many readers, but with the roles reversed there's an expectation that the decision is more justified - or is this just me?

In truth, Talking to Ourselves is a wonderful book, cleverly constructed and well translated (Neuman told me that he occasionally looked back and tweaked his original after seeing what Caistor and Garcia were making of his text!), even if it's missing the warmth and life of Traveller of the Century.  In its tone, it reminded me more of his first novel, Bariloche, and I wonder if his big, break-out work in English is the exception in terms of style rather than the norm.  With another work out later this year from Pushkin (a collection of short stories), the picture may become a little clearer :)

So, objectivity's gone out of the window then, but that's unsurprising - it's clear that for someone who spends hours each day sitting in front of a computer monitor, subjectivity is a much more common state of mind.  You see, the truth is that while I may occasionally delude myself into thinking I'm communicating with my digital readers, in my rare moments of lucidity and honesty, I realise that what I'm really doing is talking to myself - and that's a very scary thought...