The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman (tr. by N Caistor and L Garcia)

A year or so ago I read Andrés Neuman’s epic novel Traveller of the Century and its ideas coupled with an abundance of grace, charm, wit and intelligence just blew me away. And then came Talking to Ourselves, a shorter but no less compelling novel; it’s a meditation on the proximity of death and grief, a kind of literary collage comprising three distinct voices each adding different tones to the narrative. So, imagine my excitement when I received a copy of The Things We Don’t Do, Andrés’ collection of short stories. Early versions of a few of these stories, in different translations and often under another title, have appeared in literary magazines (such as Granta), but all the stories in The Things We Don’t Do are newly translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia.

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The thirty-five stories in this collection are divided into five groups entitled The Things We Don’t Do, Relatives and Strangers, The Last Minute, The Innocence Test and End and Beginning of Lexis. While I can see connections between some of the stories in each section, the collection as a whole touches on a number of different ideas. One of Neuman’s main themes is how a closeness to death gives us a growing sense of our own mortality, and several (although not all) of the stories in the Relatives and Strangers and Last Minute sections deal with this aspect, or with death itself. In A Mother Ago, a man accompanies his mother to the hospital, her illness is advanced and he knows the outcome depends ‘on the toss of a coin’:

I offered my arm to my mother, who had so often given me hers when the world was very big and my legs very short. Is it possible to shrink overnight? Can someone’s body turn into a sponge which, impregnated with fears, gains in density while losing volume? My mother seemed smaller, thinner, and yet more weighed down than before, as though prone on the floor. Her porous hand closed around mine. I imagined a little boy in a bathtub, naked, expectant, clutching a sponge. And I wanted to say something to my mother, and I didn’t know how to speak.

The proximity of death squeezes us in such a way that we might be capable of losing our convictions, of letting them ooze out like a liquid. Is that necessarily a weakness? Perhaps it is a final strength; to arrive somewhere we never expected to arrive. Death multiplies our attention. It wakes us twice. (pgs. 43-44, Pushkin Press)

Other stories touch on the subject of our identity. In one of the most playful stories in the book, Juan, José, we meet a man undergoing counselling following the death of his parents; unable to move on, he believes and behaves as if his parents are still alive. As this tale progresses, the boundaries between the identities of the two characters begin to blur, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell which of the two is the patient and which is the counsellor. Interestingly, another therapist – a different one this time – crops up again in a darkly humorous story, Outside No Birds Were Singing, played out as a frantic telephone conversation between a counsellor and her seemingly suicidal patient.

Another clutch of stories explore the relationship between guilt and innocence. A man tells of his presence at the scene of John Lennon’s murder at the Dakota; we see how feelings of guilt stealthily corrode the relationship between two friends after they are mugged in the street one night. And in After Elena (one of the highlights of this collection for me), Neuman explores the theme of forgiveness; following the death of his wife, a man decides to forgive each of his enemies, and we see the differences in the source of their animosity and reactions to this gesture.

Perhaps my favourite stories in The Things We Don’t Do focus on relationships. A Terribly Perfect Couple tells of the pitfalls of having too much in common with your partner, the dangers of ‘an excess of symmetry’. In A Line in the Sand (another highlight) the dynamics in a relationship tilt as we are left considering how to understand a partner’s feelings, territories and boundaries. And in Second-Hand, a woman s discovery of a coat in a thrift shop leads to a re-examination of her relationship with her husband. The coat looks suspiciously like the one she gave her husband the Christmas before last, the one he insisted looked ‘really great’ :

She studied the coat once more, then put it back. It was that one. It wasn’t that one. She didn’t know if it was that one. She felt the dagger twisting in her stomach again, and a pain encircling her head and pressing down on her vertebrae. She had spent all day – all her life – on her feet. When had they last gone on a trip? A real trip, just the two of them? They hadn’t had enough money. Or, above all, any reason to go. But that dark suede coat, where on earth had it come from? She searched the inside pockets, hoping to find some evidence to confirm her suspicions. They were empty. (pg. 23)

The Things We Don’t Do is an excellent collection of stories, one that illustrate Neuman’s considerable range and skill as a writer. These stories vary in tone, mood, style and length; some are playful, others more sombre in tone; some include metafictional elements while others are more conventional (but never ordinary) in terms of style. One of the things I love about these stories is their ability to surprise – one never quite knows what might be coming next.

On the whole, I would say these short stories are closer in style to Talking to Ourselves than the richness and generosity of Traveller of the Century. That said, I recognise the writer of Traveller in some of the stories, especially those in the final section: Piotr Czerny’s Last Poem, The End of Reading and The Poem-Translating Machine. The latter story focuses on another of Neuman’s favourite themes, that of translation; not simply the need to translate language, but the idea that we are constantly translating and interpreting feelings and gestures in our communications with others.

The collection ends with a series of Neuman’s reflections on the short-form narrative; not a set of rules as such, but a ‘playful way of approaching the essay,’ and they make interesting reading.

I’ll finish with a quote from the title story The Things We Don’t Do, which reads like a prose poem:

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.

[…]

I like all the proposals, spoken or secretive, which we both fail to carry out. That is what I most like about sharing our lives. The wonder opened up elsewhere. The things we don’t do. (pg 31)

This is my first review for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian (and Uruguayan) lit which starts today.

The Things We Don’t Do is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

28 thoughts on “The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman (tr. by N Caistor and L Garcia)

  1. Gemma

    This sounds wonderful. Unfortunately I’d never heard of Andrés Neuman before your review but I like the sound of this collection. I love the quotes you’ve included – particularly the one from ‘A Mother Ago’ – so this book has gone straight on my TBR list thanks to your review :)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s great to hear – thank you. I only discovered Andres Neuman a year or so ago as a few bookish people I follow (either through blogs or twitter) were reading Traveller of the Century.

      These stories come in such a diverse range of styles, and there’s something for everyone here – almost like a box of chocolates. I hope you enjoy the collection, Gemma.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    These sound like great stories.

    On the subject of being close to death. I completely agree that when death occurs or is near it brings about all sorts of thoughts in me regarding the inevitable end. I love it when writers explore issues that I have already pondered. The differing perspective is invaluable.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, I guess it’s inevitable that reading about death will heighten our sense of our own mortality. Some of the books that have resonated most strongly with me this year have explored the end of life, bereavement and grief – The Infatuations by Javier Marías springs to mind here.

      I think you’d like Andrés Neuman, and these stories are thought-provoking..

      On another topic, I’m looking forward to hearing how you’re getting on with Kavalier & Clay – that book has on my ‘want’ list for a while, and I’ve never read Chabon!

      Reply
  3. Richard

    “After Elena” sounds great, Jacqui, and the rest of the stories don’t sound bad either. I’d like to give Neuman another try before the end of the year because, while the first book of his that I read (Bariloche) didn’t blow me away, I did like aspects of his writing quite a bit. your review here is encouraging, of course. :D

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, you should give him another try, Richard. I haven’t read Bariloche as I haven’t seen a translation (and my Spanish doesn’t extend much further than sí, no and Albariño). I loved Traveller of the Century – the ideas, the characters, the way Neuman writes, everything really…and the stories in this collection are quite diverse in style and tone. He’s worth another shot (I am biased, admittedly!)

      Reply
  4. Bellezza

    Oh no, another delicious collection of short stories, and I haven’t opened Binocular Vision yet by Elizabeth Pearlman! You’re killing me, Jacqui, and I have absolutely no reason to be back at school when I want to stay home reading these fabulous books. I have Traveler of the Century; i suppose I should start Andres Neuman with that…

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Haha! Sorry, Bellezza – you can’t read everything, though. Start with Traveller of the Century as you already have a copy…I think you’ll enjoy it; in fact, I’m sure you’ll love it!

      Reply
  5. Guy Savage

    I know I’ve come across this author’s name before–I’d guess from one of his novels. I like short stories a lot, but usually tend to gravitate towards collections from many authors–unless I’m already familiar with the single author’s work–in which case I’m fine splurging on a book of short stories solely from that author.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      That’s a good strategy, Guy. I’m on a bit of a roll with Neuman as I loved Traveller of the Century so much, probably my favourite book from last year.

      Reply
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    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. I think you’d like Andrés Neuman, and this collection of stories would be a great place to start, especially as his stories are so diverse in style and tone.

      Reply
  7. Max Cairnduff

    I have Traveller, but I rather wish I had this instead. It sounds a better introduction and the quotes are great. The idea of the second hand coat story particularly is fascinating.

    The first quote reminded me of the Billy Bragg song, Tank Park Salute, about the death of his father:

    “Kiss me goodnight and say my prayers
    Leave the light on at the top of the stairs
    Tell me the names of the stars up in the sky
    A tree taps on the window pane
    That feeling smothers me again
    Daddy is it true that we all have to die

    At the top of the stairs
    Is darkness

    I closed my eyes and when I looked
    Your name was in the memorial book
    And what had become of all the things we planned
    I accepted the commiserations
    Of all your friends and your relations
    But there’s some things I still don’t understand

    You were so tall
    How could you fall?

    Some photographs of a summer’s day
    A little boy’s lifetime away
    Is all I’ve left of everything we’ve done
    Like a pale moon in a sunny sky
    Death gazes down as I pass by
    To remind me that I’m but my father’s son

    I offer up to you
    This tribute
    I offer up to you
    This tank park salute”

    Those lines, You were so tall/How could you fall? are so terribly painful, and it was that the quote reminded me of.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Tank Park Salute is such a poignant and beautiful song, isn’t it? I listened to it again just now, and I can see why the quote from ‘A Mother Ago’ reminded you of it. Thank you so much for that, Max.

      Neuman’s great, and this collection of stories would be a very good introduction to his work, particularly as the stories are quite diverse, and they do illustrate his range in terms style, mood and voice. You have Traveller, though, which I loved, and if I think of all the books I read last year, it’s probably my favourite novel. I loved the interesting and unusual characters, the themes and ideas, the charm and wit of Neuman’s writing…I could go on. He’s coming to the UK at the beginning of October, and I’m hoping to get along to an event.

      Reply
  8. Tony

    My reviews out early next week, and (as you might expect) it’s very positive. I actually enjoyed this one more than ‘Talking to Ourselves’…

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Looking forward to reading your review, Tony. Yes, this collection of stories is my second favourite (behind Traveller), and I’m sure I’ll reread them at some stage. I liked the different voices in Talking to Ourselves, though, and Elena’s story continues to flit through my mind every now and again.

      Reply
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  10. Scott W

    What a terrific review, Jacqui – always difficult to pull off where short stories are concerned – but you manage to convey something about the stories that doesn’t give them away, that gives just enough, that makes me want to rush out and read this. That first long quotation regarding the mother going into the hospital is already unforgettable.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott. I find it especially difficult to review short stories for exactly that reason – it’s so difficult to know where to draw the line. (I’m going to have the same challenge with Silvina Ocampo’s fabulous short stories, which I’m in serious danger of devouring if I’m not careful!) Glad to hear you think I’ve struck the right balance here.

      Neuman has been one of my favourite discoveries in recent years. Loved Traveller, but the short stories would make a great intro to his work. I was lucky enough to see him speak at an author event in London last year. He came across as a very genuine guy, incredibly generous with his time, too.

      Reply

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