Who willingly picks up a book knowing their heart will not be light come story’s end? Perhaps one is drawn by the critical praise pouring all over for the story and characters. Heartstring-tugging drama and critical praise usually go hand-in-hand, so what more can you do but try it for yourself? Chances are you will be pleasantly surprised with a story like Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves.
Translated from the Spanish by renowned British translator Nick Caistor, partnered with Lorenza Garcia, Talking to Ourselves shows a twenty-first century family struggling to accept the imminent death of its patriarch. Recognizing his days are numbered, this patriarch, Mario, and his ten-year-old son Lito go on the road trip of a lifetime, while Elena, the wife and mother, stays behind, getting into a sadomasochistic affair with Mario’s doctor, Ezequiel. Mario, Elena, and Lito tell the story in alternating chapters: Elena faces her declining self-worth and her changing feelings for Mario; Lito wants to do right by his parents while becoming his own person; Mario wonders what his life has been worth, trying to be a good father and husband, but is burdened by a cynicism borne from dealing with his illness.
In stories of death and grief, one usually expects a heavy-handed influx of emotion, lest the reader forget that life is fleeting and love is stronger than death, among other welcome mat sentiments. A surprise regarding this story is how unsentimental it is, especially for Elena. She understands that Mario will die, and has accepted that she no longer desires him sexually. She remembers their school days and courtship but she doesn’t think fondly on them; rather, she resents them for representing something that didn’t last long. She sees Mario’s changing body, and cannot bring herself to believe this decrepit hollow shell is the blooming young man she used to know. An aspiring academic, Elena articulates her thoughts through quotes from books she reads, inciting philosophical debates while she makes love with Ezequiel. While the least likable of the narrators, she is ultimately the most compelling character, pulled in many directions by her guilt for no longer desiring her husband, watching out for her son, and satisfying her sexual needs.
Where Elena finds herself looking back, Lito and Mario do most of the forward thinking. Like many young protagonists, Lito walks the line between child and adult. He makes believe he can change the weather at will, blissfully unaware of his father’s dismal condition. He is enchanted when he and Mario meet a stage magician at a bar, and the magician gifts Lito with a special hat. But Mario, in his cynicism and fatherly concern, pronounces the magician a fake and a creep.
It is tremendously ironic to write about a translated work that’s all about communication, or lack thereof. The very title of the book indicates that these characters’ problems are internal, and the dialogue between them is almost nonexistent. Lito is allowed to text Elena from Mario’s phone during their road trip, but it is in brief anagrams and abbreviations that Elena cannot understand (a favorite being “d sz we r v nr wl cl u sn xx”). Mario and Elena never share a conversation, and even after Mario’s death, Lito and Elena seem more distant than before. It is also ironic to write about miscommunication not just in a translated piece but a piece from the last decade, in which communication has continued to peak. Lito’s text lingo, while innovative to a need for faster messaging, is so choppy and informal that it hardly reads like language, and so Elena is helpless to get the messages she hopes for.
The Spanish language is chock full of sentences that run at a Dickensian length; complete thoughts are connected with semicolons rather than broken apart with periods. Having read many books written originally in English, where sentences are becoming shorter and sharper, I never would have guessed this particular one was originally Spanish, because no sentence lasts longer than two lines at most. It is hard to guess if the translator is domesticating the piece for an English-speaking audience, or if Neuman was innovative in writing Spanish sentences immensely shorter than usual. In a word, the book unexpectedly reads more Hemingway and less Dickens.
Adding to the experimental hodgepodge is how Mario’s chapters read. If Elena expresses her voice through writing, and Lito through speech, then Mario does it in thought. Here and there, you understand a question with a question mark and a pause with a comma, but the thoughts run in a conscious stream that portrays another meandering, helpless soul. Elena has a precisely articulated conscious stream because of her academic prowess, but Mario muses, creating a wandering and curious voice that never pauses. To feel and understand Mario’s thoughts is the most important takeaway from the book, and because the story’s unsentimental delicateness never teeters on the mushy, this feat is accomplished. Mario’s illness, I do not believe, is ever mentioned, and it does not have to be, because the details of his journey are more important than those of the medical.
Caistor and Garcia’s translation is, for the most part, masterful. Only once or twice was I taken out of the story by a strange word choice. When Elena replies to one of Lito’s messages, she mentions the message as being “delicious,” when perhaps she meant wonderful, delightful, or some other positive adjective to indicate her motherly joy (delicious sounds like a word she would use when talking dirty to Ezequiel). Perhaps it is because the title “Madam” is so old-fashioned to me, but when a character uses it in a modern context, it made me wonder if using “ma’am” was a better choice.
Nevertheless, the fact that a story about death exists where the focus is the journey, not the end of one’s life, is something to celebrate. At the end, there is no welcome-mat-saccharine moral; Elena merely watches an elderly couple walk out of an office. I do not think Neuman’s primary intention was making his audience cry, but rather to consider the reactions we have to a loved one’s dying. I cannot judge how much of this work was Neuman’s or the translators’, but they succeeded in their collected task of expressing grief as a blunt hardship of humanity. It is reflective without being melancholy, heartfelt without being sappy, and perhaps the most original story of grief you can find.
I don’t own the picture of the book cover. All rights go to their respective owners.