Interview: Andrés Neuman Author of The Things We Don’t Do

Neuman wryly explores the human condition in this taut collection of short stories. 

Shelf Unbound: What is your process for creating a story such as “Barefoot,” about a man’s father dying, which is rich with narrative and meaning and emotion but spans barely more than a page?

Andrés Neuman: To start with, I’ve always been fascinated by the expressive possibilities of the brevity to convey complex conflicts. Perhaps something brief is not the same as—and might actually be the opposite of—something short. While a brief text ends just in time, a short one stops too early. That nuance has obsessed me since I started writing poetry when I was a child. 

Secondly, I feel that, in certain radical circumstances, both in life and writing, silence can be quite more persuasive that emphasis. I’m not sure that pain admits much rhetoric. In every ellipsis, a tragedy can be told with precision and respect. In other words, as long as it is worked poetically, a gap is a potential source of shock. 

Last but not least, there was a personal experience hidden (and transformed) behind that short story. When I was very young, almost an adolescent, my father had to have an operation to save his life. While that surgery was being performed some nurse, not quite delicately, brought me a black plastic bag (one of those typically used for garbage) with my father’s shoes. Holding it, perplexed, I immediately felt how that garbage bag had just changed my life.

Shelf Unbound: One of my favorite stories in the book is “How to Swim with Her,” about a boy impulsively embarking on a long, dangerous swim with the slightly older, beautiful Anabela. What was your starting point for that story and how did it develop?

Neuman: To my eyes, a beach is a place of desire but, above all, an interesting stage for everything that does not happen to us. Many people have spent their summers and grown up on some beach, spying on unattainable bodies and pleading with time to run faster. That is why a beach is something of an immense blank page. 

I remember, one summer, that an older girl that I had fallen in love with entered the sea. I ran after her and, without being noticed, started to imitate her movements in the water. If she lifted one arm, I would lift mine. If she spun round, I spun round too. Like some choreography at a distance. We swam that way, accidentally together, until a tiny green stain came to me through the waves. It was much more than a fish: It was the upper half of a bikini. I turned towards my imaginary love and I found her searching in all directions, with a displeased grimace on her face. I quickly hid that lightness inside my swimming suit and swam back to the shore. A while later I saw her emerging, covering her chest with both hands and laughing for someone else…This old anecdote is not the short story in the book, but that tiny fetish somehow summarizes the particular mixture between desire and loss, presence and absence, of what we call fiction. 

While in the short story Anabela is older than the narrator and certainly a brave girl, I find very interesting the poetical mechanism through which readers tend to picture her as a beautiful girl as well, even though almost no physical description is actually provided in the text. That unmatchable capacity of suggestion of the written word is one of the reasons why I need literature more than anything. At least as I read her, Anabela’s character works at once as an improbable goal for the younger kid, as well as a dreamy phantasy and perhaps as a sort of Jamesian ghost. I mean, is she really right there with him, swimming at his side as he had always fancied? Have they entered the sea together at all? Only Anabela knows. 

Shelf Unbound: And how about “Monologue of the Monster,” in which a man who shot and killed a child unemotionally discusses his impulse to shoot. Where did that character come from?

Neuman: What interests me the most about monologues is that, as a moral-linguistic resource, they allow you to come out temporarily from your own beliefs and ways of representing them. In other words, a fictional monologue is a powerful method of transporting from Myself to the Other. This is something that theatre has been doing from the very beginning: the voice as a transformation project.

That text you mention was particularly hard to write. Not because of the prose, but because of its point of view. Instead of condemning from the outside an obviously condemnable fact, I was trying to imagine for a minute what someone able to commit such an atrocity might actually say to himself. Would he justify himself in some unpredictable way? Would he claim that everything was a terrible misunderstanding? Would he try to put the blame on someone else? I thought that by exploring the reasoning of a person like that I might detect some logic that we all—fortunately in a much smaller and less harmful scale—tend to use in order to absolve ourselves of our worst acts. Therefore in this text, paradoxically, brevity was also a mode of exaggeration. 

Shelf Unbound: You end the book with “bonus tracks: dodecalogues from a storyteller.” The first one is “To tell a short story is to know how to keep a secret.” What do you mean by that?

Neuman: Those four dodecalogues at the end of the book don’t intend, of course, to be rules or anything close to prescriptive. They are rather personal observations about the writing process. Each set contains twelve points precisely to avoid the pretentious, legendary perfection of ten. My dodecalogues would like to be, in few words, a playful way of reflecting on short forms.

That particular point you mention, “To tell a short story is to know how to keep a secret,” belongs to the first of the dodecalogues, which basically tries to condense some of the features of the classical short story. That tradition, we could say, which goes from Chekhov to Carver with Hemingway in between. Not necessarily my favorite tradition to write nowadays, after being studied and imitated in so many workshops, but obviously a very relevant one. For this elliptical approach to the narration, the main goal doesn’t seem to be unveiling some mystery, but rather protecting that mystery. And therefore, very wisely, it avoids putting all the weight on the ending, which tends to leave some untouched secret in the reader’s mind. To tell or not to tell— the worried skull mumbles. 

Shelf Unbound: This book was translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. To what degree were you involved in the translation process and how did that work?

Neuman: I am lucky enough to have a close relationship with my usual translators, who are by the way very nice people. Being an occasional translator myself (I translate mostly poetry from English and French), I find that link extremely enriching. They normally allow me to have a look to the first draft when it is ready, and then we spend an intense couple of months exchanging all kind of remarks, queries and nuances about both texts. There can easily be about a thousand comments in total. That process, I suspect, is as exhausting and exciting for them as it is for me.

I love (and fear) so much that period when your whole book is being literally rewritten in another language, that I often end up retranslating the original itself from its English version, whenever I find some of my translators’ solutions particularly interesting. In other words, I become the translator of my translators, who are simultaneously turned into the original authors. So we could say that, every time a book gets translated, not only its multiple senses but even its original text are happily modified. 

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