Andrés Neuman needs little introduction, particularly to regular readers of my scribbles, and ever since stumbling across the superb Traveller of the Century, I’ve been a big fan of his work. While only a few of his other books have made it into English (Talking to Ourselves, The Things We Don’t Do, How to Travel without Seeing), there are more out there, mainly his early novels, which haven’t yet been translated. My Spanish isn’t all that great, but with a little concentration (and the occasional spot of assistance from Google Translate…), I’ve managed to read, and enjoy, Neuman’s debut, Bariloche, and his semi-autobiographical work Una vez Argentina (Once upon a Time in Argentina). Which just leaves today’s choice…
La vida en las ventanas (Life in Windows) is Neuman’s second novel. It takes place at the start of the twenty-first century, in the early days of the Internet era, with the story provided by Net, a student in his early twenties (as you may have guessed, this is a nickname bestowed upon him because of his passion for surfing the net). Much of his time, especially in the evening, is spent in front of his computer:
Casi todas las noches termino sentado frente al monitor, hipnotizado por su parpadeo, informándome sobre las asuntos más remotos. Asuntos que jamás me habían interesado antes de buscarlos.
pp.27/8 (Alfaguara, 2016)
Almost every night sees me wind up sitting in front of the screen, hypnotised by its flickers, reading up about all kinds of topics. Topics that had never remotely interested me before I looked them up. *** (my translation)
A very modern problem, but in fact the book is more akin to an old-fashioned epistolary novel. La vida en las ventanas consists of the emails that Net sits and writes each night, all of which are messages to a woman called Marina.
The content of his nocturnal missives is nothing special, just a chatty summary of what’s happening in his life at any given time. The main topics include his slightly dysfunctional family (dwelling on his parents’ strained relationship, and their unhappiness with Net’s sister Paula and her new boyfriend), his friend Xavi (a bar owner who has suddenly begun to behave rather strangely) and the writer’s romantic issues, in particular his budding relationship with the feisty Cintia. Despite these heartfelt messages into the electronic ether, Net never receives any replies, and we begin to wonder whether Marina will ever respond at all…
La vida en las ventanas is a clever novel, a series of short pieces which together tell a story of a young man growing up slowly (and probably a little late too). There are several connections to Bariloche in terms of the mood and the way Net spends much of his time alone in his room, wasting his time. The difference here, though, is the development of the trademark Neuman humour and light touch which pervade his later novels. The self-deprecating style shines through, and it’s especially evident in the writer’s fascination with sex and Net’s clumsy efforts at courtship.
With much of his time spent at home, it’s little wonder that one of the main focuses of the novel is Net’s family, an unhappy group of people in the best Tolstoyan tradition. His parents’ marriage is quite clearly falling apart at the same time as Paula is attempting to stand up for her rights in the face of her father’s opposition. The small family is used as a microcosm of the wider society, one undergoing a dramatic shift from the traditional father-dominated model to a system where women have more freedom and control. Over the course of the novel, we see a shift in the dynamic of the household with the father left powerless by the end of the book.
When it comes to Net’s love life, however, there’s never even a pretence that the man is in control. From the start, he writes about his passive nature in affairs of the heart (or the loins), preferring to observe rather than act, with humorous scenes of our hero fleeing a bar after being approached by a woman on the prowl. Even when he does manage to overcome his nervousness, he somehow manages to make himself look stupid, as shown in his clumsy response to a night of passion with Cintia. As he attempts a stammered apology for running off the morning after, she cuts him off with a cool, biting response:
Supongo que te habrán contado eso de que a las mujeres nos encantan los hombres sensibles y afectivos, de esos que corren a abrazarnos a cada rato. Y, para serte sincera, no te han informado mal. Pero si confundes eso con un simple polvo, si crees que nosotras no sabemos distinguir una noche de un romance, te recomendaría con todo cariño que cambies de asesores. (p.60)
I suppose you’ve been told that women love men who are sensitive and emotional, those who rush to embrace us at every opportunity. And, to be honest with you, there’s a lot of truth in that. But if you mix that up with a quick screw, if you think we can’t tell the difference between a one-night stand and a love story, I’d affectionately recommend that you get your advice elsewhere. ***
Eventually, the two do get together, but there’s never any doubt as to who’s wearing the trousers in this relationship.
Another important relationship that recurs throughout the book involves Xavi, barman, friend and avid reader. Introduced in the first few pages, he’s a constant presence in Net’s letters, and we see how he gradually deteriorates from occasional manic outbursts to spiralling downwards to such an extent that his friend begins to avoid him. Xavi can be seen as Net’s counterpart, his shadow side, and the more we learn about him the more we sense Xavi’s importance. In one of the best scenes of the novel late on, Net discovers something about his friend that throws a different light on their whole relationship.
La vida en las ventanas works well on the whole, and much of this is to do with the style and mood. It’s a work of the night, with Net’s emails taking on a life of their own:
Hay algo fugitivo en los e-mails: ¿cómo unas palabras tan lentas, pesadas y tortuosas como estas pueden esfumarse para volar lejos en cuestión de milésimas? Conozco la explicación técnica y sigo igual de estupefacto. Constantemente temo perder lo que te escribo, o que se pierda por el camino. Claro que puedo conservar una copia in mi bandeja de enviados. Pero sospecho que en esa réplica no están mis palabras, las mismas que te escribí, sino quizá el eco de mi carta. (p.68)
There’s something of the fugitive in emails: how can such slow, heavy, tortuous words as these vanish into the distance in a matter of instants? I’m aware of the technical explanation, and yet I’m still astounded. I’m constantly afraid of losing what I write, or that it will be lost along the way. Of course, I can keep a copy in my sent folder. But I suspect that this replica contains not my words, the same ones I wrote to you, but perhaps an echo of my letter. ***
These words can be a little suspicious, and that’s also true for the book as a whole. It’s important to remember that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, even if he claims at times that he’s being completely honest. He’s using an assumed name and writing to someone we’re not sure exists; in fact, there’s a fair chance that the emails, if that’s what they are, are never actually sent.
The windows of the title refer, of course, to those Net stares into night after night on his computer, but windows play a far wider role in the book. Early in the novel, Net writes about enjoying sitting and looking out of his window, watching the gardener lazily cleaning the swimming pool, and he frequently asks Marina what she can see from her windows, or talks about views he remembers. This obsession reflects Net’s passive nature, his preference for watching others without needing to become involved (and later in the novel, he sees some interesting things from the window of his new apartment…). There’s also a nice touch in Net’s choice of a part-time job when he takes a break from his studies. I suspect that there’s something Freudian to his work in a curtain warehouse 😉
La vida en las ventanas is an enjoyable novel, even if it’s not always perfect. I felt it dragged a little in the middle, and Cintia, despite having her moments, doesn’t always feel as fleshed out as she could be (nowhere near as complex as Sophie in Traveller of the Century, for example), although that’s probably a consequence of the book’s being told through Net’s point of view. Yet it’s often successful, switching effortlessly between dry humour and heartfelt confessions. Net wears his heart on his sleeve (well, he is writing to himself) and often shows a touching vulnerability, and he’s certainly more affected by the breakdown of his family, and the troubled friendship with Xavi, than he lets on. The scene in which he eventually ‘surrenders’ to Cintia’s charms is also excellent, a lengthy seduction which works as well as anything in Neuman’s work.
This is very much a book for the young, unsurprising as Neuman was in his early twenties when he wrote it (annoying precocious writers…). However, my copy is a revised edition, revisited thirteen years on, so I wonder if any major changes were made from the original version. I’m sure the writer, like Net, would have changed a lot in that time, but despite the format of the novel, perhaps there was no real need for major changes. After all, it’s just a diary of sorts, in which a young man talks about life and love – and there’s nothing very modern in that…