Last week, I described how the first of my blogging resolutions for 2016, that of reading one Anglophone book a month, was broken in the first month of the year. However, I managed to get another of my resolutions off to a better start, namely reading one book each month in a foreign language. As regular readers will no doubt be aware, that usually means trying something in French or German, but I do occasionally push myself and read something in Spanish too, which is a far more challenging undertaking – and one I put myself through for one writer in particular 😉
That writer is, of course, Andrés Neuman, and today we’re looking at his work of non-fiction, Cómo viajar sin ver (How to Travel without Seeing). After winning the Premio Alfaguara for Traveller of the Century, Neuman was invited on a promotional tour of Latin America, and Cómo viajar sin ver is a collection of reflections from his whirlwind trip.
While initially disappointed at how short his stay in each place was, Neuman decided to turn this to his advantage in his writing:
La idea consistía en tomar notas literalmente al vuelo. Si viajaba volando, así debía escribir. Si iba a pasarme meses en aeropuertos, hoteles, lugares de paso, lo verdaderamente estético sería aceptar ese punto de partida y tratar de buscarle su propia literatura. No forzar la ecritura sino adpatarla a ese tiempo, a los tiempos. Así la forma del viaje y la forma del diario serían idénticas.
The idea consisted of taking notes on the fly, literally. If I was making a flying visit, it should be described as such. If I were to spend months in airports and hotels, in transit, the truly aesthetic response would be to accept this departure point and attempt to find a fitting form of literature. Not to force the writing, but to adapt it to this tempo, to these movements. In that way, the shape of the journey and of the diary would be identical. *** (my feeble translation…)
Rather than describing the usual tourist destinations, he decides to ‘travel without seeing’, his book a collection of observations that say more about the traveller than about the places he visits.
Starting in Buenos Aires (Neuman’s home town), we then zig-zag across South America, up to Central America and even to Miami at one point. As we pass through the countries and cities, the writer points out the similarities and differences in his inimitable manner. Slowly, however, the light tone shows hints of darkness underneath; as it turns out, it’s not all laughter and sunshine in Latin-America.
Ever since first stumbling across Traveller of the Century, Neuman has been one of my favourite writers, and I’m always keen to try more of his work. Having read all three of the books translated into English thus far, however, I had no choice but to dust off my rusty Spanish, charge up my Kindle (with a free Spanish dictionary loaded) and dive in. It wasn’t always easy, but I was helped by the structure, with the book consisting of a series of short passages (very similar to those in the writer’s blog, Microrréplicas). As always, whether I got every nuance is questionable; on the whole, though, I’m sure I got the vibe of the book 🙂
One thing I certainly picked up on, especially early on, is the humour. Many of the jokes are at Neuman’s own expense, especially when it comes to his split identity:
Aeropuerto de Barajas, Terminal 4. “Hola, señor, hola”, me aborda la muchacha del traje inenarrable y los folletos en la mano, “¿es usted español o extranjero?”. No lo sé, le contesto con distraída sinceridad. Ella se aleja ofendida.
Barajas Airport, Terminal 4. “Hello, excuse me, sir”, I was addressed by a woman in an indescribable outfit holding a bunch of leaflets, “Are you a Spaniard or a foreigner?”. I don’t know, I relied with distracted sincerity. She marched off, offended. ***
An innocent mistake, and an understandable one considering his upbringing. This won’t be the last time, he’ll find himself a little lost and confused either…
One of the main focuses of the book is language and literature, and at times Cómo viajar sin ver seems to be as much about the author’s reading as his travels, with Neuman sampling the best each of the countries has to offer. There are quotations aplenty, prose and poetry, a good gender balance and a mix between famous names (Bolaño, for example) and several more obscure writers. In Paraguay, he even discusses a recent translation – or adaptation – of Don Quixote into the indigenous Guaraní language. If you want to widen your knowledge of Latin-American literature, you could certainly do worse than take Uncle Andrés’ advice.
Of course, what helps Neuman in his literary travels is the language all of these countries share. It’s amazing when you think about it, a whole raft of neighbouring countries speaking Spanish, a chain of states divided by a common tongue. This is another topic the writer frequently comments on, giving examples of differences in the varieties and dialects of Spanish across the Atlantic. Bi-dialectal himself, his language changes as he flies back and forth, the ‘z’ sound emerging and disappearing, ‘buenos días’ replaced by ‘buen díííía’ the moment he sets foot on Argentine soil.
It’s not all observations on language, though. The writer also examines the societies he visits for differences and similarities, concluding that globalisation is gradually taking its toll on the region. As he moves from country to country, it sometimes appears as if he’s standing still:
Hoy el mayor de todos los contagios es el de los temas de conversación. En Santiago se habla, oh sorpresa, de crisis financiera y gripe A. ¿El avión habrá volado? Me pregunto si moverse es lo mismo que viajar.
Today, the greatest of all contagions is that of topics of conversation. In Santiago, people are discussing, quelle surprise, the financial crisis and swine flu. Did the plane ever take off? I ask myself if going somewhere is the same as travelling. ***
This is one of the lesser consequences of globalisation. Later in his trip, Neuman learns of far more serious effects, such as the devastation wrought on the people (and the environment) by multinational companies with little regard for human rights or the law of the land they have imposed upon.
There is an even darker side to the story, though, and Neuman gradually dwells less on linguistic oddities and football anecdotes, and more on serious issues. There are frequent mentions of the struggles of indigenous people, for example in Paraguay and Mexico. We also hear in passing of the Colombian drug wars (and the very dangerous FARC). Yet everyday life can be just as dangerous, as the writer discovers in Guatemala:
He olvidado mi paraguas en la habitación y me dispongo a buscarlo, pero él me detiene con una sonrisa indulgente. “No hace falta el paraguas” me dice, “no lo vas a usar”. “En Guatemala”, agrega, “no se camina”. Asiento y suspiro. Estos nubarrones inundan medio continente.
I’ve left my umbrella in my room, and I set off to look for it, but he stops me with an indulgent smile. “There’s no need for an umbrella” he says, “you won’t use it.” “In Guatemala,” he continues, “nobody walks.” I sit down and sigh. These clouds cast a shadow over half the continent. ***
In a country wracked with social violence, a simple walk outside turns out to be slightly more challenging than one might have thought…
Cómo viajar sin ver is a cleverly constructed book, a work where despite everything appearing random, the truth is that it is anything but. Subtly layered and building in intensity, Neuman’s ‘diary’ mentions topics in brief, only for them to continually reappear. Football is one (of course!), as is the flu epidemic following him around the continent, but a major recurring theme is the news at the start of his journey of a coup in Honduras. This is a story that won’t go away, and one that will eventually halt Neuman’s progress in his tour of the Americas.
Some serious stuff, then, but the mood is strategically lightened when required. There’s the odd beer or two, many an hour spent lost in bookshops and several jokes at the writer’s expense. A good example of this is when Neuman is torn between wanting clean underwear and the possibility of angering trigger-happy US airport officials. You see, the shop assistant forgot to remove the tag from the underwear he bought, and fearing a scene at the airport, our friend decides that discretion is the better part of valour, dumping $20 worth of grey cotton in the bin and continuing to smell.
Sadly, Cómo viajar sin ver is unlikely to make its way into English any time soon, the combination of obscure (for us) literary references and the fact that there’s very little description of the places he visits probably giving any potential publisher pause for thought. While I hope that I’m wrong, it might be best to check out the original if your Spanish is up to it – it’s a great book to dip into, one for all vicarious travellers. What’s more, despite Neuman’s claim in his title, you sense that he did see a fair bit while travelling, meaning that the reader also gets a good look at Latin-America. ‘Cómo viajar sin ver’? Not quite. In fact, for the grateful reader, it’s more a case of ‘cómo ver sin viajar’ – gracias, Señor Neuman 😉
UPDATE (July 2016) – How to Travel Without Seeing has made it into English after all! This August, it will be out in both the US (from Restless Books) and the UK (from Simon & Schuster), translated by Jeffrey Lawrence 🙂