Andrés Neuman’s second novel to be translated into English, Talking to Ourselves, is a powerful book about a family affected by terminal illness. Mario, a trucker, is suffering from an unspecified disease and in order to spend more time with his son Lito, he takes him along on his last truck rides. While her husband and son are away, Elena has an affair with Mario’s doctor. The story is narrated by each character, but it’s really Elena’s book, as she shares the conflicted emotions of losing a loved one.
We caught up with Neuman while he was in NYC for the PEN America World Voices Festival, and over a jug of beer we asked him about his work.
—Randy Rosenthal & Laura Mae Isaacman
Tweed’s: There’s a section of Talking to Ourselves where you quote from a Virginia Woolf essay in which she writes, “…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” Is this what you were aiming to accomplish with the book, bringing the theme of illness into literature?
Andrés Neuman: Elena is like a hyperbole of what any caregiver goes through when taking care of someone. On one hand, you need some pleasure in order to save your life, and at the same time, you do feel guilty when you have found that a beloved one is dying. So there’s this desperate need for pleasure and, at the same time, this unavoidable guilt—the guilt of survival.
Unfortunately, I think that every person has had or will have the experience of taking care of someone. So I wouldn’t say Talking to Ourselves is a story about ill people, but about the particular and invisible illness of the one who is taking care of someone who is ill.
Tweed’s: Were you motivated to write out of personal experience with illness?
Andrés Neuman: Well, I didn’t fuck any doctor. Although maybe I wouldn’t have minded, to be honest.
Tweed’s: Fucking a doctor?
Andrés Neuman: Yes, because they know so much about the body.
In Elena’s character, there is the faith, the possibility of being healed through pleasure. So she’s not simply evading with her lover. I think she’s doing something deeper, which is trying to find out if she’s still alive—testing her body. She’s going right through the center of the problem, which is the body, the pain, and checking what is actually happening with her own body. What about it that you love is being ruined? one could say.
But what I actually went through was that, first of all, my father was very ill, and my mom was the caregiver. So far, normal. But not much later, my father’s life was saved, and my mom got ill, and died, very young. So I saw how a caregiver, who is supposed to be the strong character, can suddenly be the weak character. So my point was, who’s taking care of the caretaker? Who is thinking about the weaknesses of the strong character of the novel, or the family? Who’s telling the story of that person who’s not supposed to be allowed to tell their story? When I saw how the strong and healthy person can be, suddenly, the ill and weak person, I deeply felt that nobody was really caring about the caretaker.
Tweed’s: And what about the son, Lito? He doesn’t know that anything’s wrong.
Andrés Neuman: A second theme of the book is how we lie to the ones we love—supposedly for their own sake. The link between lie and protection is a tricky link. Elena and Mario are lying to their child so he doesn’t suffer too much with the truth. But at the same time when he someday finds out the truth, he will be as damaged or even more damaged than he would be by knowing the truth now. So everybody is hiding the truth, and at the same time wondering if this is going to protect or hurt the others. We’re talking about the foundation of the family, because a family is founded in certain lies, which are supposed to keep them safe.
In the novel, no character is telling the whole truth to the other, in order to protect them. So, for example, the doctor doesn’t tell the whole truth to the patients. Among the patients, the caregivers will try to soften the truth to the ill one, which is very common in families. On the other side, the ill one will probably know more than the caregiver thinks, but won’t let them know because it’s too much—taking care of the person and coping with the anxiety and the stress of the ill one—so the ill one pretends not to know too much about the truth that’s not being told. The parents won’t tell the truth to the children, and the children will have so many questions they won’t ask their parents, because they are scared or feel that they shouldn’t ask those questions. So everybody has questions and is hiding secrets. The foundation of the family and the foundation of narrative is the meaning of these secrets—that’s what a novel is about.
Tweed’s: Are you saying people shouldn’t be holding back the truth?
Andrés Neuman: I wasn’t trying to be didactic here. I don’t teach lessons with books. I just ask questions and try to analyze conflicts. I search for conflicts, not for easier comfort level answers, so I don’t know what they should do. All I’m saying is that they’re not telling the truth, and that could be good or harmful—we don’t know.
Tweed’s: This is just how people are?
Andrés Neuman: Exactly. I was trying to go deep in the contradictions that everybody has when a difficult situation is happening. I was more concerned with being plausible and conflicted with these characters rather than teaching the reader what they should do. Narrating is the opposite of preaching. If I had a child in this situation, I tend to think that I would tell the truth. But I could be perfectly lying. I don’t really know.
A narrative is very useful. It’s like a laboratory in which all your past conflicts are rehearsed, and that’s why narrative is like a second life. I would say it’s twice real. Because there’s you—your present, your life, your memory—and then there’s what might happen. It’s like your life plus your potential lives. It’s you plus potential you.
That’s why I hate it when people say, “I don’t have time for reading or writing.” Some people say, “I love writing, but I don’t have the time.” They don’t know that by reading and writing, you earn time. Because you’re living twice. So the more you read, the more time you have. You have layers of existences. When I don’t write or read, I can clearly sense that I am wasting a part of my day.
Tweed’s: So literature offers a deeper life?
Andrés Neuman: Exactly. Some people ask me, “Since you have had such a strong experience when you were very young, taking care of your father and then your mother, why didn’t you just write a memoir?”
I find this to be a very, if you’d allow me, a very American question. This impact of the real story, this certain sensationalist approach to writing. I’m not saying that all American readers want this, but it’s like a journalistic infection of fiction, which is beauty on one hand—but on the other hand, this has restricted the perspective of the complexity of fiction. What I mean is that if I had written a memoir with my experiences, I would have been much more constrained. I would have been much more concerned about my family. I don’t think I would have dared to say all the things I said about my own family through Elena.
Thanks to the filter of the fiction, thanks to the fact that there was a factor of difference—because it was Elena and not me—I felt less scared to go really deep within my own real conflicts and contradictions about taking care of someone. So I call her Doctor Jekyll and Lady Hyde of the caregivers, because she tells all the parts: giving yourself—entregarse—devoting yourself to someone, doing so many things out of love, taking genuine care of someone, having a very intimate and deep experience with someone else’s body and needs.
Everyone talks about that part of the caregiver—the politically correct part. You’re giving your life for someone else—the sacrifice, the obligation. That’s great. That’s what religion taught us. I understand that. But what about the other part that only Elena—not me—dared to say? You feel resentful. You can hate everyone, and you can hate yourself. You have fantasies of running away, or throwing yourself through a window. You fantasize about having another life. You’re looking for the other to die, and on the other hand, you’re looking for the other one never to die, even though he’s suffering, because you don’t want to be left alone. So one part of you can’t wait for this to just stop, and on the other hand, in a second way of selfishness, you prefer the other one not to die even if they’re suffering, because as long as the other person is there, you won’t be thinking about your own suffering. In a way, it’s safer to be taking care of that person, because after the death, there will be the grief, their regrets, the questions—the dark side of the caregiver giving. I don’t see this on TV or on the radio. It’s like: love as much as you can and say goodbye with love. It’s not that easy.
Tweed’s: Both are taboo—you’re not supposed to explore either of those sides, but that’s what makes it interesting. This conflict is what makes the character interesting.
Andrés Neuman: Elena is all about naming this problem, pronouncing these taboos. I don’t think I would have thought to do so on my own behalf. I would say Elena’s conflicts sound more real to me than my own conflicts, because censorship was cut through fiction. That’s why fiction can be twice as real, not a light version of reality, but the harsh, raw version of reality. Reality has to do with politeness, censorship, relationships with other real people—so what you get in reality is sometimes light reality. Real life is light reality. And in fiction, you can go right to the point.
For many different reasons, I needed to do this through a novel and not just a memoir about my mom, me, and the doctor—who, by the way, was pretty hot. And it was a conflict for me, because we were sitting there in the doctor’s office: my father, me, my mom, and the doctor, who had a name like a movie star. It was almost like Scarlett O’Hara, a very glamorous name. I was even wondering, Is this a real name? She was a character herself, and she was a very attractive woman. She had this exuberant body, which you could only have if you’re healthy. I was thinking, it’s painful to look at this exuberance now because my mother is becoming the opposite. And she was the kind of woman that my mom used to be, before being ill—very brave, with a strong personality. She was the only one, among all the doctors we visited, able to tell me the truth. She let me know, your mother is going to die, very soon. She didn’t use anesthesia for this. I asked her to tell me the truth, and she gave me the truth. And I was thinking, I don’t know if I wanted to know the truth, actually. But later on, I was grateful because I could say a proper goodbye. But I was so disturbed by the unavoidable fact that the more I went into the idea of my mom’s death, the more I needed to think that that doctor was hot.
Tweed’s: As an escape?
Andrés Neuman: It was like protection. Like saying, I’m still alive enough in order to think not only about medicines and terrible things related to the body and hospitals, but I can think of someone else’s thighs. And obviously, because I’m not the character of a novel, nothing happened at all. It was just a fantasy. But I could see that my father and me were trying not to look at the doctor when she showed us her back. We tried to concentrate on the table and were gazing at the papers. I had never talked about this with my father. You don’t talk about these things. You can only mention these things through fiction. But I’m sure both of us were feeling guilt and, at the same time, relieved by our attractions towards this doctor who was trying to save our family’s life. As I told you, disappointingly enough, nothing happened. But I decided that something good certainly happened in my story. I changed genders in order to get some distance.
Because I thought the conflict would be more expressive if the caregiver was a woman, because sadly in our family’s traditional education, women are supposed to be taking care of the others. A man can do that but you have to learn it by yourself—you’re not educated to do so from the very beginning. Generally, even nowadays, I think women are more in charge of the caregiving, generally speaking. My family was an exception, so there are exceptions. But I have known many women that felt there was no choice. They had brothers or a father, but no one wanted to commit himself to do it, so the woman ends up doing it. This obligation makes the conflict stronger, but at the same time, I think both in literature and in real life—well, there’s no difference between literature and real life—both inside and outside books, female unfaithfulness is less socially accepted, out of sexism and due to the structure of families. So I thought that if my character was being unfaithful and taking care of someone, and it was a woman, the conflict would be much more socially interesting.
Tweed’s: If it was the father was sleeping with the doctor, it would be more expected, I guess you could say. It would still be taboo. You shouldn’t be sleeping with your partner’s doctor, but at the same time, you’d more expect this of a man.
Andrés Neuman: I’m pretty much convinced that equality won’t come to our society until we accept that desire and faithfulness should be exactly the same for women and men. Both faithfulness and unfaithfulness. But the whole narrative tradition has a lot to do with unfaithful women who are punished.
It’s another idea in common between both of my novels. In Traveler of the Century, you do get a Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina who’s not punished because she’s being unfaithful. That, to me, is interesting, too.
Tweed’s: At that time especially, you can’t have a woman committing adultery and not being punished. They made it okay to write about adultery. But now we can write about it from the other side.
Andrés Neuman: Of course, but that’s what I found so exciting: to go back to those days of the nineteenth century novel and make the characters do all kinds of things they were not supposed to do in the nineteenth century. Unfaithfulness—you weren’t supposed to narrate that. I was just so amused by narrating a scene in which there was a hand fan, very supple dialogues, linkings, very Austenian cautious flirts, having tea in the salon, and everything is so—
Andrés Neuman: Yeah. So everything seems to be so delicate, and suddenly a character goes pissing, and you just keep on narrating, and you describe urination with the same care that you were describing the tea being poured in the cup. You beautifully describe the urine, like raindrops. So I was interested in breaking the rules of the nineteenth century novel.
Tweed’s: If it were the a nineteenth century, the author would stop when the character leaves to go to the bathroom, but you just kept going.
Andrés Neuman: But even nowadays, we really have much more prejudice than we think would come from that Romantic education. Because in most movies, you wouldn’t see a woman having her period without being funny or terrible.
The only way of approaching this in a movie nowadays is as comedy or tragedy, but not like a natural thing. Almost no female character, even nowadays, has her period as a normal thing.
Tweed’s: As a society, we’re not there yet.
Andrés Neuman: Exactly. I have never seen a romantic movie in which the female hero has her period, and she still makes love. That just hasn’t happened in the twentieth fucking century.
Tweed’s: It would ruin the romance.
Andrés Neuman: Although a week every month, this is happening in all the fucking houses! I’m not saying you should film a whole movie on the period. But you have a thousand movies on sex and falling in love. Nine hundred ninety nine will avoid the subject of the period on the first date.
Tweed’s: Maybe because male writers don’t want to go there.
Andrés Neuman: That’s what I meant. Exactly. So in a way, I was going to the source of cultural prejudice, rather than just destroying nineteenth century tradition. I think we’re still nineteenth century in many aspects. It’s very interesting to go to the source and say: how could we just restart this in a different direction? So from this point of view, both female characters of Traveler of the Century and Talking to Ourselves are not that different.
Tweed’s: I didn’t make that connection before. Did you write the books around the same time?
Andrés Neuman: Yeah, maybe there was a break of a few months, in which I was painfully unhappy until I restarted the book. The gaps between books, to me, are the most painful moments in my whole life. I feel so miserable. No matter how many things I do, if I don’t have a book in the process, I feel totally useless. I can be translating, I can be writing articles, posting on my blog—it’s not about publishing. It’s about being in the middle of the writing.
Tweed’s: So are you worthless right now or are you writing something?
Andrés Neuman: Well, I’m really unhappy now.
Tweed’s: So you’re not writing something?
Andrés Neuman: I’m taking notes, and I’m depressed, because I haven’t started a new novel yet, so my life now is story-less, you could say. I’m terribly alone and sometimes people ask me, “If you like having a book so much, why do you publish them?” Because if I don’t publish them, I can’t start a new one.
Tweed’s: You just keep working on it.
Andrés Neuman: I am very slowly revising. I’m not saying you should quickly publish something. In fact, I think that one should spend more time revising a manuscript than writing it. To me, the rewriting is writing. But when you feel it’s finished, you’re not really free to start a new one until you just get the fuck rid of the thing. Please go. Because otherwise you’re stuck in the book, and you get what I call Flaubert’s Moment.
Flaubert’s Moment is the following: there’s a story about Maupassant and Flaubert being together, and Maupassant asks Flaubert, “How was your day?” And Flaubert replies, “Ah, it was so hard. I got up, I had breakfast, I put in a comma. I had lunch, I got a nap, I woke up, I took that comma out, and had dinner.” When you reach that moment when you’re taking out the commas you had just put in, that’s the moment when you have entered a loop, and you cannot keep on revising. When I start to do this Flaubert thing, I say, okay, I cannot do this anymore. Maybe in that moment, you can send the book to someone else and get someone else’s opinion. I ask my wife, who’s a poet—a brilliant one, I must say, although I’m not objective, but she’s brilliant anyway. She’s a Latin-American Literature teacher. She’s a Spaniard. So I ask for her advice. I don’t allow her to read a single line before I end, but as soon as I finish, as soon as I get to Flaubert’s Moment, I beg for my wife’s help. And because she loves me, she is terribly cruel with my manuscript, which I am thankful for. When she does her job, which is basically destroying my book, I try to fix all the terrible things that she notices, and then I ask a few friends. I have a group of writers—we love each other very much, so we are able to say, “This is crap.” After I gather three or four opinions, I search for coincidences. If a friend of mine is a poet, and another is a narrative novelist, or a short story writer—very different backgrounds and tastes—and they all tell me that they don’t like the ending, then clearly the ending does not work. So after I try to fix all these problems that these four or five people detect, then I send it to my agent and, finally, to the publisher. And after this, I feel, as I said, terrible and miserable, and I wait until the next book comes to me.