‘Una vez Argentina’ by Andrés Neuman (Review)

Una vez ArgentinaJuly is drawing to a close, which (inevitably) means that another Spanish-Language Literature Month is almost at an end.  Before we wrap up all things Hispanic here at the blog, though, we have one last review to finish off the event in style, looking at a rather personal book by a well-known writer.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated into English (yet), meaning that many of my readers won’t have the pleasure of trying it – consider this my little contribution to the public service then, summarising the book for you all 🙂

Una vez Argentina (Once Upon a Time in Argentina) is an autobiographical work by Andrés Neuman, the writer of such excellent novels as Traveller of the Century and Talking to Ourselves.  It’s an opportunity for the Argentinean-born writer to look back at his family history, with the book starting in the time of his great-great grandparents and running right up to his own teen years (despite this edition being revised and expanded last year, Neuman has resisted the temptation to add anything of his later life!).

The book consists mainly of sketches of his relatives, with the writer looking back at his family tree, while discussing his parents’ courtship and also his own younger years growing up as a football-mad boy in Buenos Aires.  However, the book is also a story of the country, hence the title.  The time covered is one of unrest in Argentina, and the small dramas of the Neuman family history often give way to history on a larger scale, as we see how politics can affect family matters too…

Una vez Argentina is an entertaining book, written in an excellent style, swinging from light to heavy, personal to political, and back again.  Neuman handles the contrasts well, even when we move from meandering family anecdotes to heavier, more sombre (and more upsetting) events – there’s usually a wry comment to relieve the tension:

“Era probablamente miembro, con perdón del oxímoron, de los servicios de inteligencia de la dictadura.”
Chapter 5 (Alfaguara, 2014)

“He was probably a member, excuse the oxymoron, of the dictatorship’s intelligence service.” *** (my translation)

Una vez Argentina is a story of a family and a country, leading to an end many will know from the start.  You see, the time of the narrative ends, in a way, with the writer’s departure for Spain as a teenager, his family bidding the country they grew up in farewell.

As mentioned, much of the book focuses on family, and the majority of the chapters relate the background and actions of Neuman’s ancestors and relatives.  Having seen the writer at the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of years ago, some of these details were already familiar, but at one point, it all became a little too familiar – which is when I realised that the chapter in mention was an adaptation of one of the stories from his short-story collection The Things We Don’t Do!  That early piece is just one of many entertaining stories of his enterprising relatives (hat makers, artists and union activists) which the writer has pieced together and expanded upon.  The information came from oral histories but also from family records – in particular, Grandma Blanca’s notebooks and the recorded tape message to a future Andrés from Great-Aunt Delia.

While the family is one focus, there’s a lot here about Neuman himself too.  The book starts with his birth, where he’s already showing himself to be someone who doesn’t always act as he’s supposed to:

“Cuando nací, mis ojos estaban muy abiertos y, por desconocimiento del protocolo, no tuve a bien llorar.  El médico me examinó al trasluz como si tratara de una gruesa hoja de papel.  Yo le respondí con otra mirada, supongo que curiosa.  El médico dudaba entre zarandearme o desentenderse del asunto.” (Chapter 2)

“When I was born, my eyes were open wide and, not knowing the protocol the occasion demanded, I didn’t cry.  The doctor examined me in the light as if I were a thick sheet of paper.  I responded with a look of my own, one of curiosity, I suppose.  The doctor seemed unsure as to whether to shake me or wash his hands of the entire matter.” ***

What follows in little Andrés’ upbringing are boys and toys, football and Matchbox cars (and, later, in a nod to his first novel, Bariloche, magazines hidden in a jigsaw box…), and eventually, the nascent writer emerges, having overcome his initial, stubborn, refusal to read.  These sections are mostly amusing and light, but the tone switches at times, with several poignant moments (e.g. the first death he encounters, remembering his lost relatives).

However, the darker side of the story is mostly reserved for the history.  The twentieth-century was a murky period in Argentina’s past, and the dark period of the ’60s and ’70s brought a military junta, multiple arrests and disappearances, and even, apparently, book burning:

“Exactamente nueve meses antes de mi nacimiento, en la ciudad de Córdoba, el Tercer Cuerpo del Ejército había organizado una quema colectiva de ejemplares secuestrados en librerías: ardieron en su gloria Proust, García Márquez, Neruda y otros perturbadores.” (Chapter 5)

“Exactly nine months before I was born, over in the city of Córdoba, the Third Army Corps had organised a collective burning of titles seized from bookshops: Proust, García Márquez, Neruda and other provocateurs burned in all their glory.” ***

The real world intrudes sharply into family anecdotes, making the reader aware that life wasn’t as rosy as the writer makes it appear at times.  We learn of the relatives forced to flee the country, the people arrested (and later dumped in the woods) by special forces and the time his father was caught up in the university shut-downs…

Neuman does a wonderful job of talking about a multi-talented family, full of businesspeople, artists and musicians (I highly doubt my own family tree would be quite as interesting…). Over the course of the book he also explores his identity, reflecting on the time he became aware of his Jewish (and Indigenous) origins, and his first, innocent loves.  With the writer being two years younger than me, several of the stories ring bells, with mentions of watching Sylvester Stallone movies and hearing Desireless’ Voyage Voyage bringing back memories of my own childhood.  Occasionally, we see things from very different viewpoints, though:  I’m sure my experience of the Falklands conflict was not the same as his.  And as for the Hand of God… 😉

Of course, with this one not having made it into English as yet, I was reading this in Spanish, and, despite my limited command of the language, for the most part it was a straightforward read (mainly because I was reading it on my Kindle with the help of an inbuilt ES-EN dictionary…).  The book runs to 255 pages in the print version, divided into 75 short chapters. and in English I would have knocked it off in a couple of days.  However, in Spanish, I read it over the course of a few weeks, with the second half finished over an intense four-day burst, and I think I enjoyed the book more for spacing it out.  Sadly, while helpful in many ways, the Kindle version did fall down in one crucial area – I only discovered the invaluable list of family members *after* I’d finished the book 😦

Will Una vez Argentina make it into English?  I’m not entirely sure.  It’s a great read, but I’m not completely convinced that the average Anglophone reader will care enough about the doubly personal tale of Neuman’s family and Argentinian history.  Of course, if (like me) you’re a fan of Neuman’s work, then you may well be tempted.  This is the second of his works (after Bariloche) that I’ve tried in Spanish, and if nothing else is forthcoming in English soon, I’m sure I’ll be tempted to try another one 🙂

One aspect of the book I’m still not completely sure of is whether it’s truly non-fiction or not.  Is it simply a stylised family history, or (in a Knausgaardian manner) have some elements been altered to enhance the story?  I suspect that fact does win out over fiction for the most part, but (as is always the case when a skilled writer is involved) it doesn’t really matter:

“Personajes imaginando lo que recuerdan, recordando lo que imaginan.  ¿Es verdad?  ¿Es mentira?  No son esas las preguntas.” (Chapter 4)

“People imagining what they remember, remembering what they imagine.  Is it true?  Is it a lie?  Those aren’t the right questions.” ***

A good story is always worth listening to, and this book contains many great stories.  When coming to the end of the book, with the writer’s departure for the old world imminent, I felt the sense of loss (and the new struggle of finding a space between two worlds) almost as much as him – and if that’s not the sign of a good storyteller, I’m not sure what is 😉

10 thoughts on “‘Una vez Argentina’ by Andrés Neuman (Review)

  1. Well, I for one would love to read this book, so I hope it does get translated. Thanks for the review, Tony – very interesting. Like Stu, I admire your ability to read this in Spanish!


    1. Jacqui – Let’s hope it does get translated and published at some point. Perhaps if more of his fiction makes it into English, someone will be interested enough to have a go at this one too 🙂


  2. I always love to read reviews of novels not yet in English, though not without a certain bitterness! I suppose whether it’s translated may depend on how famous Neuman becomes.


    1. Grant – Well, it does happen to me too (I can’t cover all the bases…). I also suspect that this might make it into English at a later date if he has a couple more big successes in the UK/US.


  3. I wasn’t exactly blown away by Bariloche, Tony, but I’d always wanted to give Neuman another try and this one sounds interesting enough to shape up as an autobiographical option if I decide not to read El viajero del siglo next after all. The mix of family history and Argentinean history is very appealing to me. Cheers!


    1. Richard – No worries 🙂 I started with Traveller, and this is the fifth of his I’ve read now. I suppose it’s hard to trust someone’s judgement when their command of the language isn’t all that great, but I did enjoy it, for what it’s worth 😉


        1. Richard – Well, I’d struggle to buy a coffee, but (with the help of a handy electronic dictionary) I can usually get the gist of a nice, easy Spanish book 😉


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