The title suggests the issue. If we are talking to ourselves, chances are we are not talking to others, communicating, but holding it all in. Not the best way to confront any problem. That reluctance to speak to others is what we observe in Andrés Neuman’s classy little novel, Talking to Ourselves, deftly translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. Neuman was born in Buenos Aires and has won several of Spain’s literary awards for his earlier work. This is the first book that I have read by him, and although I have some reservations, Neuman’s narration (specifically its multiple voices) pulled me in so that I read most of the novel in one sitting.
Husband, wife, and son propel the narration. The father, Mario, is dying, though we never understand the nature of his terminal illness. His wife, Elene, carries most of the story. Their son, Lito, is ten years old and the third voice. Because of Lito’s age, his parents cannot be that old—perhaps in their thirties—but again we are never told specifically, though Mario is probably a few years older than Elene. At the beginning of the story, Mario and Lito are on a road trip together in a truck called Pedro, ostensibly making deliveries (or so Lito believes) but more likely to facilitate a brief period of time between father and son. Lito does not know that his father is ill, that he has very little time to live.
Something is not right; this we discover almost immediately, because as soon as Mario and Lito depart for their road trip, Elena goes out to diner with her husband’s doctor (recently separated from his wife) and the two of them end up in bed together. Instant guilt: “As I write this I despise myself, but sometimes Mario’s body disgusts me. Touching it is as difficult for me as it is for him to look at himself in the mirror. His scaly skin. His bony frame. His flaccid muscles. His sudden baldness. I was prepared for us to grow old together, not for this. Not to go to sleep next to a man my age and wake up next to someone prematurely old. Whom, I continue to love. Whom I no longer desire.”
Pages later—after Mario is dead—this is Elene’s observation: “When someone you slept with dies, you begin to doubt their body and yours. The once touched body withdraws from the hypothesis of a reencounter, it becomes unverifiable, may not have existed. Your own body loses substance. Your muscles fill with vapor, they don’t know what it was they were clutching. When someone with whom you have slept dies, you never sleep in the same way again. Your body doesn’t let itself go when it is in bed, your arms and legs open as though clinging to the rim of a well, trying not to fall in. It insists on waking up earlier, on making sure at least it possesses itself. When someone with whom you have slept dies, the caresses you gave their skin change direction, they go from relieved presence to posthumous experience. There is a hint of salvation and a hit of violation about imagining that skin new. A posteriori necrophilia. The beauty that was once with us remains stuck to us. As does its fear. Its hurt.”
Heavy stuff, because Elene’s brief fling with Mario’s physician stops once her husband dies. Was the sex simply her way of responding to his approaching death? Or, is it more likely an observation that Mario makes has he is dying: “We become ill in order to find out whether we are loved.” (82) It is clear that Mario did not know that his wife had that sexual interlude with his doctor.
Even what follows adds to the author’s double-pronged dialogue about guilt and grief, for as the survivor, Elene has to pick up the pieces, wrap up her emotions about the lengthy process of dying and death she has just observed. “Someone had to call the funeral home to buy the coffin. And the newspapers to dictate the death notice. Two simple, inconceivable tasks. So intimate, so remote. Buying the coffin and dictating the death notice. No one teaches you these things. How to get sick, care for, declare terminally ill, say goodbye, hold a wake, bury, cremate. I wonder what the hell they do teach us.” Dictating Mario’s obit, Elene wonders if she shouldn’t inform the newspaper that she is the one who has died.
If I were still teaching, Talking to Ourselves is the kind of meaty, probing novel I would like to discuss with my students. Was Elene wrong to have that brief fling with her husband’s doctor? Was the sex her attempt to delay his death or bring it on more quickly? Does the lack of explanation for Mario’s disease matter? Why does Neuman fail to show us Lito’s reaction to his father’s death in spite of the fact that the boy is the first narrator to speak in the story? Probably these will be the stuff of book clubs that will discuss the novel to death (intentional pun).
Andrés Neuman: Talking to Ourselves
Trans. by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 160 pp., $23
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com.