How to Travel Without Seeing by Andrés Neuman would be the perfect book to read while travelling, either alone or with someone else. If accompanied, the reader would be advised to warn them that they have serious competition, for Mr Neuman is the ideal travel companion: knowledgeable, entertaining—with a reading list to envy and admire—yet never aggravating.
His itinerary for a book tour of 19 countries in Latin America, following his Premio Alfaguara prize win could perhaps have been devised as a kind of punishment, leaving him with barely a night to settle in before taking another plane and even at one point forcing him to go without clean underwear. Thus he is moved to consider the slight variances between the customs forms of neighbouring nations and to classify the environment and reception style of each hotel, while wondering what he is missing by this travelling ‘without seeing.’ But he soon realises that such a whistle-stop tour gives him the rare opportunity of visiting the whole region at once. It also provides a constant stream of taxi drivers to chat to, always an interesting way to gather intelligence.
Current affairs at the time of this journey were perhaps especially lively, with elections, the coup in Honduras and worry over outbreaks of swine flu. This quite naturally prompts reflection on the tangles of political relationships, the machinations of various US agencies and organisations as well as the past from living memory back to the days of the first interactions between the natives of the region of his birth and the country he now calls home, Spain. Then there is football: in keeping with my personal belief that home is the city of your football team, he reconnects with his ‘beloved’ Boca Juniors, marvels at an Argentinian TV channel that broadcasts the match for free but only shows the crowd, leaving viewers to deduce what is happening from their reactions—there are even unexpected cameos as he travels from players Diego Forlán and Pibe Valderrama. Neuman experiences the cultural dissonance of being familiar with a place to the point of having childhood memories of it, while living somewhere else and returning almost as a tourist. At varying times as he travels, his accent causes confusion and he is aware that he switches to a more Spanish pronunciation as he departs for home. A dissonance that many who have two or more ‘homes’ may recognise.
‘When traveling to certain places, we move forward with our bodies and backwards in our memories. In other words, we advance into the past.’
Of course, all this time spent in transit also allows him a good deal of uninterrupted reading and time for consideration. If sometimes the thoughts are unfinished, half-remarked upon and worthy of an expansion that never comes, that is resonant of most departure lounge insights or conversations engaged in when traveling solo. It gives us brief notes like, ‘Ecuador is a country that gets up early, yet continues to postpone its awakening,’ or the overheard remark, ‘“When God created Venezuela,” someone says, “he was totally high.”’ Or even one from Mexico that many notebook-users may sympathise with:
‘I was ready to put down an original thought about the country, when someone from the airport’s Duty Free came to offer us tequila in little plastic cups.’
That this breakneck journey has been arranged to celebrate Andrés Neuman’s own writing is hardly remarked upon, instead he is constantly reflecting on, reviewing and recommending the work of others, from famous names like Bolaño, Díaz and Marquez, to relative newcomers or historical authors that may have drifted out of the cultural consciousness. So often readers in English encounter Latin America via European or North American writers that the perspective of a Europe-dwelling, Argentinian-born writer feels at once fresh and long overdue.
Like many of us, he likes to read about places as he travels through, or is about to. So, in Buenos Aires he reads stories by Samanta Schweblin (‘Dry. Tough. Coldly observed, brutally narrated.’) He mentions the blog of writer Fernanda Garcia Lao and her novels, Muerta de hambre and La perfecta otra cosa:
‘I don’t know which of the two seems more brilliant to me.’
Then, on the way to Montevideo, Neuman is surprised to find he is reading a story by Oliverio Coelho that is set there. In it, ‘the main character, with his tired collapse and resigned love,’ reminds him of Juan Carlos Onetti’s character, Díaz Grey. Later, he talks more of Onetti:
‘Nobody has found adjectives to describe our world with such exact evil. His work is unlike anyone else’s. In life there are days, or atmospheres, or images, of which one can only think, it’s as if Onetti wrote this.’
In Caracas a book by Venezuelan writer Francisco Herrera Luque grabs his attention because of the appearance of a character named Andrés. In Lima he stays in the Miraflores neighbourhood where ‘one feels like one’s walking through an anthology of Peruvian literature.’ Neuman is happy to eat dinner at a hotel in the building which once housed the Country Club where the family in Bryce Echenique’s A World For Julius stays when their house is demolished. And perhaps the only disadvantage of being so surrounded by books is that:
‘I go crazy, crazy, crazy. I lose all sense of my luggage’s capacity. And I begin to buy everything I haven’t bought before.’
Neuman is gifted at making every book, article, or poem he mentions sound enticing. I made more notes than would fit into one review, from the Guatemalan poet working with pre-Hispanic language, to a dissident blogger from Cuba. Be warned again: he will also make you go ‘crazy, crazy, crazy’—although it is disappointing to find that some titles are not yet available in English. Either serious lobbying of publishing houses, or serious study of Spanish, will be sparked by this book!
The translation is natural and stylish, capturing the fast pace, humour and darkness of a journey through this region, which is—if we needed reminding—much more celebratory and rich than would be apparent from a few decades of skimming news headlines. Jeffrey Lawrence and Restless Books are to be commended for bringing it to an English-speaking audience.
‘We travel without a past, we erase while we travel, we fly while we forget.’
But the notebooks survive to remind us. And if we aren’t fortunate enough to be able to visit these 19 countries via a book tour, at least we can here on the page.
Andrés Neuman (1977) was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he spent his childhood. The son of Argentine émigré musicians, he lives in Granada, Spain. He has a degree in Spanish Philology from the University of Granada, where he taught Latin American literature. He was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and was included on the Bogotá-39 list. He is the author of numerous novels, short stories, poems, aphorisms, and travel books. His first novel translated into English, Traveler of the Century (FSG), won the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize, and was selected among the books of the year by El País, El Mundo, The Guardian, The Independent, and Financial Times; it was also shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and received a Special Commendation from the jury of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. His second novel translated into English, Talking to Ourselves (FSG), was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and for the Best Translated Book Award, shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and selected as the first among the twenty top books of the year by Typographical Era. His last book in English is the collection of short stories The Things We Don’t Do (Open Letter). His works have been translated into twenty-two languages.
Jeffrey Lawrence received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and is currently a professor of English at Rutgers University.
J. C. Greenway was born in Liverpool and lives in Tokyo, where she writes the website ten million hardbacks, follows Liverpool FC and drinks a fair amount of tea.
How to Travel Without Seeing is published by Restless Books. Author and translator bios and cover image courtesy of the same.