Some books, more than books, are thresholds: lines we cross that leave us somewhere other than where we began. Some books lead us to realize, paraphrasing the gnostic gospel of Thomas, that another kingdom is spread out all around us, even if we see it not. I’m not saying this happens often, and I’m not saying it only happens with books, but it did happen to me when I read Andrés Neuman’s 2009 novel El viajero del siglo.
El viajero del siglo was the first novel I read for pleasure in Spanish, as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, and reading El viajero del siglo, I felt truly at home in Spanish for the first time. Neuman’s novel bid this newcomer welcome, like the wind in its moving final passage. What’s more, it opened the door to a place where small things matter, where every detail of lived experience is to be observed and enjoyed, and where the whole world—now paraphrasing Andrés himself, in the kind dedication he left in my copy—can be read as a translation.
These revelations came to my rescue when I spent the spring of 2014 in Granada, Spain, the city where Andrés has lived since leaving Argentina as an adolescent. Although the novel takes place in an amorphous, movable city somewhere (and sometime) in nineteenth-century Germany, El viajero del siglo is rooted in Granada, and Granada permeates the book. Like any traveler settling into a new place and a new language, I was disoriented. My host family’s Andalusian accent was incomprehensible; easy things like ordering coffee and sending letters became complicated; the streets seemed to actively resist being memorized, dropping me at unexpected destinations even when I was sure I knew my way. I read El viajero del siglo for the second time in Granada. The novel was like a security blanket, welcoming me into its pages, easing me into my new surroundings. In May of that year, I was lucky enough to meet Andrés in his adopted hometown. He graciously signed my copy of El viajero del siglo with the dedication I mentioned earlier: “Para Arthur Arturo, viajero de frontera en esta Wandernburgo andaluza, deseándote que el mundo entero sea una traducción.” This is appropriately difficult to translate, but in English it might be something like: “For Arthur Arturo, cross-border traveler in this Andalusian Wandernburg, wishing you that the whole world might be a translation.”
It is hardly surprising that these words, written on the inside cover of what Andrés called his ladrillo, his “brick,” should have inspired me to pursue translation as a craft and a career, and to continue sinking into Spanish as a second language. Perhaps more surprising is how long it took me, a fan of Andrés’s writing and a nosey translator, to get around to reading him in English.
Andrés is eminently translated. His writing can be read in twenty-two languages, and has been brought to English by many great talents. George Henson’s translations of his poetry and prose have appeared in World Literature Today; his short story “Continuity of Hell” is a personal favorite of mine, and rings eerily true at present. A translation of Andrés’s poem “Genesis, COVID.19” by Ilan Stavans makes a moving addition to the collection And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic. Jeffrey Lawrence’s translation How to Travel without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America is likewise available from Restless Books. Neuman’s fiction has been brought to English almost entirely by a team of two: Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, who have collectively translated Traveler of the Century, Talking to Ourselves, Fracture, and The Things We Don’t Do. With three novels and a book of short stories under their belt, Caistor and Garcia have been dedicated ushers of Neuman’s work into English, and we are happy to feature an interview with them in this dossier. Finally, I am proud to count myself among these names, with a few poems from the verse collection Vivir de oído in the present issue of Latin American Literature Today.
Reading Andrés in Spanish helped me enter new worlds: the world of Spanish; the world of translation; the world of Granada; the world of small things that, when contemplated as a codependent whole, give you an impression of the bigness and the beauty of this life. I wrote to Andrés in January 2020 to suggest putting together a feature on his work for Latin American Literature Today. At the time, I did not anticipate that a few months later I, like billions of others, would be adapting to another new world: the world of COVID-19. By March, the emails between Andrés and me were sprouting novel greetings and sign-offs; we wished each other health and safety, rather than just sending the customary abrazos. Culture, language, and human interaction had undergone (and are undergoing) a tectonic shift.
Over the course of 2020, as the world grew foreigner and foreigner around me, I read Andrés in my mother tongue. I had just come home to Oklahoma after presenting a book in Mexico when the virus broke out in the United States. Soon after touching down in Dallas, I realized I would not see my friends and colleagues from the other side any time soon, unless it was through a screen. Fittingly, with movement or the lack thereof on my mind, I picked up How to Travel without Seeing.
“These days we go places without moving,” Jeffrey Lawrence translates. The book begins with a reminder of our modern condition as “sedentary nomads.” Through his fragmentary musings, we follow Andrés as he tours Latin America after winning the 2009 Alfaguara Prize. He writes “on the fly,” capturing travel in real time and revealing the particularities of spaces and behaviors—airports, riding in taxis, etc.—that we are too eager, these days, to see as universal.
Reading How to Travel without Seeing, I missed the little specificities that make the world so interesting. At the same time, the book let me appreciate these specificities through the words of another, now brought even closer to home in translation. The same super-fast communication that inspired Andrés to write this way now allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends whom I couldn’t see in person. And reading about the quirks of Latin America’s capitals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in English, ten long years after the book’s first publication, reminded me that seemingly minor observations can resonate far and wide across time and space: an encouraging thought in this moment marked by phenomena of staggering scale.
On top of all this, I would be remiss not to mention a more obvious foreshadowing (or road sign) in How to Travel without Seeing: Andrés’s jaunt through Latin America takes place in the midst of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, and in each successive country he comments on the particularities of their respective protocols, from the “alien masks, cameras, and monitors that take our temperature” of Argentina to the health form, “almost impossible to read” and whose “information seems incomplete,” of Venezuela. Crossing one border after another, Andrés reflects, always fleetingly, on the strange reality of empty stadiums and crowded voting centers, on how easy it is to ignore mass death as long as the dying are poor, and on the economic concerns that trump any humane interest in the virus’s victims. This is a message many need to hear, especially in the United States. If you’ll forgive another Bible reference, this book teaches us that we often react to the suffering of others less like Christ and more like Pilate: “We wash our hands. We wash our hands. After the outbreak of swine flu, we don’t stop washing our hands. Finally our actions align with our principles.”
I then moved on to The Things We Don’t Do, which is ostensibly a short story collection but reads more like a photo album, a series of literary snapshots: brief texts that often defy generic expectations, obeying their author’s own variable criteria, as is evidenced by the two pieces included in this issue of LALT. The titular text is not short fiction so much as an homage to a part of the human experience that has recently grown more ubiquitous: unrealized plans, uncompleted projects, unproductive days, “all the proposals, spoken or secretive, which we both fail to carry out.” This text is a mantra for quarantine: never has it been more apposite to sing the praises of inaction, to find joy in what might otherwise be depressing.
Next came the novels, starting with Talking to Ourselves, a story that draws the reader into empathetic, intimate terrain, cutting between the dying advice of a terminally ill father, the inner monologue of a child, and the diary of a mother’s life as both a caretaker and an individual all her own. The story centers around the loss of a family member to illness, but that death is not the novel’s endpoint; rather, death arrives in the midst of the story and we read about life both before and after. This year, it is not comforting but perhaps helpful to read a story like this one, about death as one moment out of many.
On a lighter note, and as the title suggests, Talking to Ourselves is made up entirely of characters talking to themselves, whether into a voice recorder or a personal journal or their own minds. It was refreshing, in the midst of quarantine, to listen to strangers speaking. I have been working for a while now as an interpreter, and reading this book in translation, with all the deliberate imperfection and phonic naturality that Nick and Lorenza preserved (or reinvented), reminded me of nothing so much as simultaneous interpreting: recreating a person’s speech in a different language in real time (which is, by the way, just as artistic and creative as literary translation). Reading Andrés in English, I noticed the prevalence and richness of speech in his writing in a way I never had when reading him in Spanish.
The next translation was published mid-COVID. Fracture is one of a generation of books that were written (and/or translated) before the virus, but will be read during it, and we are lucky to count Fracture among these titles. In a review published in World Literature Today and Latin American Literature Today, Hélène Cardona comments on the aptness of this novel for 2020—Fracture is, appropriately, about catastrophes and the ways we live before, during, and after them. As Hélène says, the novel evinces how, when catastrophe changes our lives, “We all want to return to normal but wonder if we can or should.” Now that the catastrophe has arrived, change seems only natural; there is no normality to return to, and maybe what we once thought was normal wasn’t so normal after all.
I ended my journey through the fictional worlds assembled by Andrés, Nick, and Lorenza back where I started, with the book that had opened so many doors for me years before. Traveler of the Century is about going places and going nowhere. In parallel to How to Travel without Seeing, the novel reflects on how to travel without traveling. It is also about how the past and the present are not so distinct as they seem. In it, Andrés demonstrates that the styles and strictures of the nineteenth century are perfectly capable of framing the concerns and conflicts of the twenty-first. At the present moment of stationary travel and reencounter with our oldest, most persistent enemy (disease), these would be reasons enough to turn to Traveler—to make of this brick a door jamb as we cross the threshold into our new world.
But I don’t want to end with a call to read Traveler of the Century, or any of Andrés’s books in translation, due to their relevance to our current circumstances or their utility as mental guides to our times. His work is indeed relevant and useful—again, like the wind in the last pages of Traveler—and much more of his writing cries out to be translated: his online epistolary novel La vida en las ventanas [Life in the windows] comes to mind, as do his eye-opening aphorisms in books like Barbarismos [Barbarisms] and his much-needed reflections on the human body in his most recent book, Anatomía sensible [Sensitive anatomy]. I will always be thankful for the doors opened by Andrés and his translators, and I will keep returning to these books for new insights on our ever-changing world and my ever-changing role in it.
That being said, my wish for myself and for all readers who find Andrés in translation, whether on bookshelves or in the digital pages of LALT, is that we also take the time to read him for no reason at all. Traveling together into the cold, unfamiliar territory of another new decade, we should accept the warm welcome we are bidden by his words, even when we’re not sure exactly where we’ve arrived.