‘Bariloche’ by Andrés Neuman (Review)

As you may have noticed, I’ve read a lot of tricky books in my time (many this year alone), so why is today’s book, a 150-page first novel, one of the most difficult I’ve ever read?  Well, there’s a simple answer to that – there’s a lot that’s lost in translation…

*****
Bariloche is the first novel of Argentine-Spanish writer Andrés Neuman, he of Traveller of the Century fame.  It’s a much shorter and simpler book than his IFFP-shortlisted work though, and is centred on the life of Demetrio Roja, a rubbish collector in Buenos Aires.  Every day, he goes to the depot where he and his work partner cruise the empty streets of the Argentine capital, removing unsightly rubbish before the rest of the city starts its day.

However, back home, we see a different side of Demetrio.  In a stark, semi-vacant apartment, he sits and occupies himself with jigsaw puzzles.  Not just any puzzle will do; they all have pictures showing the lake, forests and mountains of Bariloche, a small rural town on the other side of Argentina.  You see, Demetrio is not a native of the big city, and in his lonely apartment, he pines for the home of his youth – and a woman he once knew:

“Era lindísima y mayor que yo.  Se vestía como los hombres del lugar, escondiendo el cuerpo lo más que podía.  No vivía lejos, pero para mí ese trecho de tierra y a veces de barro era toda una ceremonia, una distancia que no podía recorrerse así nomás.”
p.32 (Anagrama, 2009)

“She was very beautiful, and out of my reach.  She dressed like the local men, covering her body as best she could.  She didn’t live far away, but for me this stretch of land and, at times, mud was a complete ritual, a distance which I could never cross.” (my poor translation…)

As you may have guessed, Demetrio is not a very happy man…

Bariloche consists of sixty-five short chapters, several lasting less than a page, while the penultimate chapter, the longest in the book, only runs for six pages.  Initially, these scenes of urban life are merely snap-shots of Demetrio’s daily routine, but as the novel progresses, we are treated to more glimpses of his life before his arrival in Buenos Aires, in particular, of a relationship he has which ends abruptly.

While the scenes in the mountains are sunny and filled with languid happiness, the chapters in the capital mostly happen in the dark, in the midst of the refuse of the big city.  There’s an obvious contrast between the purity and innocence of Demetrio’s youth and his life in Buenos Aires, and this contrast isn’t limited to his physical surroundings – life in BA also seems to have corrupted his morals.  His young love was innocent, if forbidden:

“Nos besamos in ese momento y después no importó nada aparte de sus manos y las mías.” (p.61)

“We kissed at that moment, and afterwards nothing mattered except her hands and mine.”

Back in the big city, however, Demetrio’s female affairs are less simple, as he is sleeping with the one woman he really should have left well alone…

The two strands, past and present, intertwine to create a fuller picture of a man whose life is going nowhere.  Trapped in memories, many of them pasted onto cardboard and carefully cut into small pieces, Demetrio is stuck in a rut he’s unlikely to climb out of any time soon.  Work is simply a chore, and his love life is a dead end waiting to smother him alive.  Still, in his mind (and on his kitchen table), he’ll always have Bariloche…

*****
The observant among you (i.e. those who have actually read the post carefully) will have realised by now that it wasn’t the book that was difficult but the fact that I was reading it in the original Spanish.  Sadly, Traveller of the Century is, at this point, the only one of Neuman’s books to have appeared in English, and having read it twice and loved it – and having caught up with the writer at the Melbourne Writers Festival -, I was keen to try another one.

How?  Well, I have studied Spanish before (two years at GCSE level while doing my A-Levels), and the similarity with French, another of my languages, helps a lot.  In essence though, it was me and my hazy memory of the language (with a little help from Google Translate) against an authentic literary text – I staggered through twelve rounds, but I got a hell of a beating 😉

If I’m being honest, it would be hard for anyone to take my review at face value as I did struggle with the book at times.  The first few days saw me read about seven pages at a time, with constant stops to look words up, and I really thought I had bitten off more than I could chew…  However, I slowly got the hang of things, and my long-term memory kicked in, allowing me to double that by the end of my two weeks of reading.  While there were still words I didn’t know, I opted for fluency over complete comprehension where possible, especially if I sensed that not knowing a certain word was unlikely to affect the flow of the story.

I did get a lot out of Bariloche, especially when contrasting it with Traveller of the Century, as it allowed me to compare the two books and draw out some parallels with, perhaps seeds of, the later, longer novel.  Demetrio’s illicit affair has shades of Hans’ relationship with Sophie, and an old homeless man the rubbish collector befriends may well be a literary ancestor of the Organ Grinder.  The care taken when describing the streets of Buenos Aires (and the beauty of Bariloche) is also repeated in Neuman’s later description of Wandernburg.  Finally, the picture of Demetrio poring over his jigsaw puzzles in a grotty bachelor pad evokes images of Hans sitting in his room at the inn, dictionary in hand, working away at his translations (which, in turn, is uncannily close to the image of Tony turning frequently from book to i-Pad in a desperate attempt to make sense of it all…).

What it lacks though, is the sparkling conversation and warmth that pervades Traveller of the Century.  One of the features of the latter book is the way in which it exudes life and laughter, with Hans and Sophie knowing full well that they won’t be able to enjoy themselves forever, but giving it their best shot anyway.  In contrast, Demetrio is taciturn and isolated, a man who’s lost even before he’s started the game.  Mind you, it’s just as well that the writer skimped on the dialogue in Bariloche; whenever the characters did start talking, I really struggled to understand a word of what they were saying…

For a native (or skilled) reader of Spanish, this is a book to be knocked off in a couple of days – it took me about two weeks 😉  Still, it was definitely worth the effort, and I did enjoy it, even if it never reached the heights of Traveller of the Century.  One thing is for sure though; with Pushkin Press’ translation of Neuman’s Hablar solos only about six months away, I think I’ll just wait for the translation next time 🙂

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8 thoughts on “‘Bariloche’ by Andrés Neuman (Review)

  1. Blimey, well done & I think I'll wait for the translation, not because I wouldn't try the original, but I wouldn't want to put a translator out of a job – Honest!!. seriously congrats & what language will you try next?

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  2. Gary – I think that will do; I can't see myself trying Japanese any time soon. Then again, if the next Elena Ferrante book takes a while to get into English, maybe Italian could be next…

    Then again, maybe not 😉

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  3. Tony, first, props to you for giving this a go in Spanish. If I may, though, I think your first quote about the girl being “mayor que yo” should be translated as [she was] “older than I” rather than she was “out of my reach.” Also, Bariloche is actually a city with a population of about 100,000 people and only really a “small town” in relation to Buenos Aires. By the way, I read this earlier in the year and liked it OK without being bowled over by it or anything like that. Many Spanish-language reviewers who really liked the book seemed to think it was some big deal that Neuman used various linguistic registers (i.e. the different narrators speaking Buenos Aires-centric Spanish and the more neutral “international” Spanish used in the third person narration), but I didn't think that was so impressive a feat even though I did enjoy some/many of the short passages for their sort of poetic point of view. Anyway, glad to see you speak about the “sparkling conversation and warmth” of Traveller of the Century. I didn't find those things in Bariloche either (not that it's the type of story that requires them), but I'd like to give Neuman another try in the future since you and Gary and Stu and others have spoken so highly about novels of his that I've yet to read. ¡Saludos!

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  4. Richard – Thanks for the advice (and if that's the only mistake in those two quotes, I'm more than happy!). As for town v city, I'd still call that a town, although probably not a small town – that's my UK usage, and other varieties of English may use the word differently.

    I enjoyed it, but I do recognise that it's not a mature, fleshed-out work like 'Traveller of the Century'. I like the idea of the different styles for the prose and dialogue, even if (as I mentioned) I really struggled once they got going in Buenos Aires slang. I didn't put this in the review, but there was one part where it went from a really slang conversation into a beautiful, imagery-laden paragraph, and the juxtaposition of styles worked really well.

    Good to see too that I'm not the only person in my circle of blogging friends to have read this book 🙂

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  5. First off, you are to be emphatically congratulated on your Spanish and your bravery in tackling the original. I wait for the day when I'll be able to read an entire book in the original German… but it'll be The Neverending Story, which I've already read in two languages, so it's cheating just a bit.

    And this reminds me that I just ordered Traveler of the Century (Hardcover! Cheaper than the paperback! It was a bargain I couldn't resist, even if it's from Amazon). So while Bariloche will have to wait, I have at least one Neuman on the way. Definitely a result of your enthusiastic endorsements.

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  6. Biblibio – Bravery? Perhaps… I had other thoughts while reading it 😉

    I really hope you enjoy 'Traveller of the Century'. I've been plugging its merits for a while now, and I just hope that I don't cause too many readers to be disappointed…

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  7. wonderful to at least know about this in english Tony ,lets hoep it gets to english either that or they bring out a translation supplement lol ,I wish I could try spanish but only now words I can work from my basic knowledge of french and german ,all the best stu

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