Conquering Displacement With Words
BARCELONA, Spain — When he was just 22, the Spanish-Argentine writer Andrés Neuman was anointed by no less a luminary than the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who had a discriminating eye for talent and wasn’t lukewarm when he found it. “The literature of the 21st century,” Bolaño proclaimed, “will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.” Bolaño said he felt like weeping when he discovered such a young, gifted writer; Mr. Neuman’s first novel, “Bariloche” (1999), Bolaño wrote, had “enthralled” and “hypnotized” him for the uncanny ease of its writing.
Mr. Neuman, that young writer of promise, is now 37, with nearly 20 books to his name — poetry, short stories, essays and aphorisms — that have made him a significant fixture in Spanish-language literature.
This month Farrar, Straus and Giroux published “Talking to Ourselves,” Mr. Neuman’s second novel to appear in English. It comes after his acclaimed “Traveler of the Century” (2012), an ambitious novel of ideas in the European tradition, which has been shortlisted for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. The Spanish critic Fernando Valls, who writes for El País, said in an email that Mr. Neuman was “the only writer of his generation who has written a great novel, not just a good one.”
Set after the Napoleonic wars, “Traveler” tells the story of Hans, a lonely wanderer, who stops for the night in Wandernburg, a fictional town on the shifting borders of Saxony and Prussia. Hans finds it strangely difficult to leave — especially after he attends a salon, where philosophy and poetry serve as instruments in the art of seduction, and he initiates a wildly passionate affair. At nearly 600 pages, the novel teems with allusions to Kafka, Mann, Borges and Madame de Staël.
“Someone once called it ‘Madame Bovary’ meets ‘Californication,’ ” Mr. Neuman said, speaking from his studio in Granada, Spain, in a Skype interview, with Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” playing in the background. The novel is built around the last of these 24 songs, which speaks of the solitary wanderer and an organ grinder who plays on, although nobody is listening. The songs were the favorite of Mr. Neuman’s mother, a concert violinist who died while he worked on the novel, which is dedicated to her.
“Each novel should refute the previous one,” said Mr. Neuman, who boldly changes register with “Talking to Ourselves” to deliver a contemporary family drama and unflinching story of grief. The cast is chiseled down to three main characters — a woman, her dying husband and their 10-year-old son — whose solo voices braid together to create a kaleidoscopic whole.
If “Traveler of the Century” is a symphonic performance, then “Talking to Ourselves” is a more intimate chamber piece. Distilled to just 160 pages, it’s also a literary adventure that pays tribute to the classic road tales, from “The Odyssey” to “Don Quixote” and up to David Lynch. Mr. Neuman said it was “like Lynch’s ‘The Straight Story’ but with a subversive twist” on gender.
With “Talking to Ourselves,” Mr. Neuman draws from his family’s experiences with the tyranny of illness and displacement. Born into the politically turbulent Argentina of the late 1970s, Mr. Neuman left Buenos Aires in 1991, at 14. His childhood came to an abrupt end, he said, when his family had to sell its belongings in a garage sale, and strange people walked off with his favorite toys. With his brother and father, he boarded a flight heading for Granada, where his mother had secured a one-year contract to play violin in the symphony.
It was a voluntary exile, but the family wanted to leave before military officers pardoned by Carlos Menem, the Argentine president, could be found strolling the city streets. When the plane took off, Mr. Neuman watched his father break down.
The family went from a large Latin American capital to a provincial European city — “the streets looked like an Escher painting” — and, for a year, his mother was the sole breadwinner. By 15, Mr. Neuman was working odd jobs as a curtain hanger, an ice cream maker, a Latin tutor. At the University of Granada, where he received a scholarship to study philology, he fell in love with García Lorca’s work and began writing poetry. He left his Ph.D. research, on politics and the short story, to write full time. His father, an oboist, became a musicologist at the same university.
“I deal with the trauma of displacement through writing,” Mr. Neuman said. His émigré family had shifted many borders to arrive in a new world. In a 2003 novel, “Una Vez Argentina” (“Once Upon a Time, Argentina”), he writes about his immigrant ancestors, including his paternal great-grandfather Jacobo, a Jew in Poland who escaped near-certain death doing military service in Siberia. Jacobo purloined the passport of a German soldier, whose last name was Neuman, and escaped with it to Argentina, becoming just that, a “new man.”
Mr. Neuman wrote about Argentina in his first two novels, but as he gets further from the country chronologically, his novels have come to inhabit imaginary territories, which he says are like “alephs,” referring to a story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, in which the aleph is a central point that folds into it all places and times.
Borges is paramount for Mr. Neuman, whose devotion to his work tied him closely to Bolaño, whom he credits with giving “an asexual Borges some flesh and blood and sex and viscera.” Thanks to Bolaño, Mr. Neuman said, “my generation can be both Borgesian and carnal.” Mr. Neuman also shares with Bolaño the condition of being extraterritorial. Bolaño, he said, “was a Chilean who wrote the great Mexican novel from his home in Spain — he forged a space for writers who have hyphenated identities inside the Spanish language.”
Eric Chinski, editor in chief at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and publisher of Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” and “2666,” said in an email that Farrar was always looking for ambitious writers. And, of Mr. Neuman, he said, “Whether he’s writing on a grand or intimate scale, he’s staking out some very important literary terrain, both in terms of form and themes.”
Bringing together his family’s musical tradition and his love of the road, Mr. Neuman, who enjoys singing whenever he can, recently accompanied two fellow displaced writers, the Peruvian Fernando Iwasaki and the Catalan-Andalusian Mario Cuenca Sandoval, on a Quixote-like road trip around Spain, playing Beatles songs. Mr. Neuman’s next adventure comes in the form of a great American road trip, which will include appearances at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York on April 29 and May 1. Asked about his United States book tour, he said: “I’m a little self-conscious. When I see my books in a shop, I feel as though it were a mistake. Hopefully, the mistake that will last for a while.”