What we cannot see is what gets in our way
I sat with one hand on the wheel, one on Andrés Neuman’s short story collection. My eyes were locked into a vertical loop that found them darting downwards towards the book, upwards towards the road, and then furiously back down again to devour more. Trapped between cars. Trapped between realties. In one I was lost in rapture, experiencing the excruciatingly painful joys of a fictional childbirth. In the other, I was trapped in the monotonous routine I’d repeated almost daily for weeks, waiting for the twisting herd of vehicles in the car-rider line at my actual child’s school to begin moving.
My child. As if I somehow owned them. My child. As if I had actually given birth to them. Men don’t do that. At least not the ones who occupy the very real physical space outside of Andrés Neuman’s head. However in Delivery, Neuman explores this what-if angle with abandon, violently birthing a baby from the most distressing orifice imaginable, while at the same time asking delicate, probing questions about the true nature of innocence, our maddening quest for rebirth, and the repetitive cycle of life and death that we’re all forced to endure. And he does this all within the space of a single ten page sentence.
Delivery is but one of over thirty short experimental pieces contained within The Things We Don’t Do, a collection of stories that are loosely brought to together by a single unifying concept: exploring the road not travelled can lead us to interesting, unexpected, and often quite amusing places. Each new story told serves as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to briefly glimpse in a different direction, to question the how and the why of what we believe and hold most dear from new and uncertain angles.
She paused to think it over. How could it have ended up here? Why would her husband pawn his present from the Christmas before last? Things hadn’t been going so well over the past year. But they hadn’t gone that badly. Or had they? She tried to recall their most recent arguments. No, there must be other reasons.
There are stories about nakedness, death, mental illness, things lost (and then found) in translation, swimming accidents, underwear, poetry, poison, and more. In one, a woman makes a startling discovery while shopping in a second-hand store. In another, a man naively believes that his innocence will shield him from harm. In a third, a famous person of privilege becomes unnerved when he discovers that someone’s been leaving menacing messages for him in the guestbook of every hotel he visits. Each one of these tales is gripping for a multitude of different reasons, but ultimately it’s the common bond that they share, the author’s instinctive ability to empathize with his flawed subjects, that transforms them into endearing snapshots worthy of their reader’s attention.
Neuman can be tough author to pin down. Traveller of the Century, his first novel to appear in English translation, clocked in at nearly 600 pages and read like a historical mystery, magical realism, love story about literature and the art of translation that was written only for the most intellectually astute among us. His second offering to appear, the much shorter, far more intimate Talking to Ourselves, found him painting an absorbing portrait of a modern family being forced to face tragedy head on. Both are exceptional in their own right. Both prove that Neuman is a writer with range. It’s the smaller snippets on display in The Things We Don’t Do however that cement Neuman’s place as a modern-day storytelling master. These are the pieces you’ll want to read, re-read, highlight, and then dissect to reveal the secrets of the hidden truths that lay buried in their bloody guts.
Any foreign language author attempting to break into the English reading market will live or die based on the strength of his or translators. It should be noted that in Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Neuman has found the perfect pair to entrust with his work. The consistency they’ve shown across each volume, the way they’ve captured Neuman’s playful style, his unique rhythm, and his passion for exploring our shared humanity is commendable. The thing we must do is ensure that Neuman’s impressive body of work continues to arrive in translation in a timely manner. The thing we should not do, no matter the cost, is remove Caistor and Garcia from that process anytime soon.
Notable selections: How to Swim with Her, Delivery, After Elena, and Piotr Czerny’s Last Poem