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.
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.