Tuesday, 30 September 2014

'The Things We Don't Do' by Andrés Neuman (Review)

After reading three of Andrés Neuman's books over the past couple of years (one in Spanish!), and having met him in Melbourne a while back, the Argentinian-Spanish author has definitely become one of my favourite contemporary writers.  However, where those three books were novels (in the case of Traveller of the Century a rather hefty one), his latest offering in English is very different, a collection of short vignettes no sooner tasted than devoured.  So, does his shorter work live up to his longer books?  The answer is a most emphatic 'yes' :)

The Things We Don't Do (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) is a wonderful little collection of short stories, divided into five sections.  Each section contains seven thematically-linked stories, few of which run for more than three or four pages.  In addition to the stories, there's also a collection of four 'Dodecalogues' at the end, semi-serious guidelines for writing short stories (the choice of twelve rules for each set is, as the writer says, to avoid the absurd perfection of ten...).  Together, it all adds up to 170 pages of great reading.

One frequent feature of the collection is the short, short story, pieces barely managing to fill a page or two.  While I used to be a little suspicious of these, they've actually become my favourite type of short fiction as they distinguish themselves more clearly from novels than longer short stories do.  A good example is the opening story 'Happiness', a one-page piece about a man who condones his wife's adultery.  The reason for this is fairly bizarre - it's mainly because he wants to be the man she's sleeping with.  Once he's managed to live up to this standard, his wife will, of course, come back to him...

Another good one is the first section's title story, 'The Things We Don't Do'.  One of the shorter pieces in the collection, it's a list of things the writer loves about their relationship:
"I like that we don't do the things we don't do.  I like our plans on waking, when morning slinks onto our bed like a cat of light, plans we never accomplish because we get up late from imagining them so much."
'The Things We Don't Do' p.31 (Pushkin Press, 2014)
It's a less a story than an ode to the joys of a lazy Sunday in bed.

While there's a lot to enjoy in the shorter contributions, the longer ones are pretty good too.  A story about a rather less loving relationship is 'A Line in the Sand', where two stressed partners are separated by a literal line, scratched out on the beach.  Standing in the burning sun, the man slowly realises the deeper significance of the line the woman has drawn, and his unwillingness to accept it is indicative of the controlling nature the woman is attempting to highlight.  (Mind you, being compatible isn't all that great either.  In another of Neuman's relationship stories, 'A Terribly Perfect Couple', he shows how being perfect for each other can cause all manner of unexpected issues.)

Another of the main topics is writing, and in 'Theory of Lines' we get a light-hearted hint at one of Neuman's own inspirations.  This one is a short piece narrated by a writer inspired by the washing his neighbours hang out:
"As the years go by at my window, I have learned that you should not go too far in changing what you observe.  You can discover more by concentrating on just one point rather than transferring your attention hither and thither,  This counts as a lesson in synthesis.  Three or four washing lines ought to provide sufficient material for a thriller."
'Theory of Lines', p.158
There you have it - a story in every soiled item of underwear...

One of my favourites in this collection is 'Mr President's Hotel', an intriguing story in which a VIP is constantly asked to sign the visitor's book at hotels.  However, this apparently tedious task takes on more importance when he discovers that a mysterious N.N. always seems to have been there first.  When the sinister message leaver begins to direct their comments at the narrator, he suddenly feels threatened by a shadowy figure with no existence beyond the two initials and the notes.  It's a fascinating story, one that has you thinking of Kafka, and his protagonists pursued by unseen menaces.

There is definitely evidence of other influences on Neuman, though, with the short pieces paying homage to Argentinian writers like Córtazar and Borges.  Examples include 'Man Shot', a brief monologue of the thoughts of a man about to be shot by a firing squad, and 'A Cigarette', a bloody tale of honour amongst criminals.  A more obvious nod in the direction of Neuman's influences is given by the story 'The God of the Blind Men', in which a small literary society is honoured to receive none other than Jorge Luis Borges himself as its guest of honour ;)

The content is excellent, but it's the variety of styles and voices which makes The Things We Don't Do stand out.  'Delivery', for example, is a mesmerising, one-sentence stream-of-consciousness telling of an unusual birth.  Thoughts of the conception, the speaker's own childhood and the birth intermingle, all in a story with a definite (and unusual) ending.  The style is very different, though, in 'Juan, José', a tale alternating between the points of view of a psychiatrist and a patient.  The story is full of professional jargon, clinical and to the point - the only problem is that we're not sure which of the men is the psychologist and which the patient...

Another pleasing aspect to the collection is the translation - after recent disappointments, it's nice to find something which reads so well.  One of the final stories, 'The Poem-Translating Machine', examines the frustrations of translation in more detail, as a poet disappointed by a poor translation of his work begins to experiment with having it retranslated over and over again:
"Unless the poet's good taste is failing him, this fourth version of his poem is full of errors and is already close to unintelligible.  The referents have gone out of the window, the theme has been cast to the remotest margins, the enjambments sound like saws.  Devastated but at the same time amused, for a moment he imagines all his books translated into this or any other language.  He sighs gloomily.  No two ways about it, he thinks to himself, poetry is untranslatable."
'The Poem-Translating Machine' (pp.152/3)
It's an interesting idea, one with a familiar ring...

Neuman is particularly interested in translation, and his afterword mentions many of the people who have brought his work into English.  Some of the stories were originally released in English in magazines, and he takes care to name the original translators.  However, his main praise is reserved for the work of Caistor and Garcia:
"If any of the texts in this volume touches somebody's heart, that will be thanks to the patient skills of my translators, Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia.  The mistakes, I'm afraid, were my idea." (p.171)
It's nice to see the translators get due recognition :)

I loved The Things We Don't Do, and I think most others will too.  There's far more here than I could cover in a single post, with many delights awaiting anyone who decides to get themselves a copy of the book.  In fact, the only issue here is one which Pushkin Press will have recently had to deal with.  You see, while there's no doubt Pushkin will have put Neuman's name forward for next year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the question remains as to which book, as both this one and Talking to Ourselves were released in 2014...  Personally, I'd go for this one, but you never know what publishers are thinking.  Still, if Neuman makes the longlist again in 2015 (and I'd say there was a fairly good chance of that happening), we'll all find out ;)