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Andrés Neuman crosses boundaries across the Americas in ‘How to Travel Without Seeing’

Author Andres Neuman
Andrés Neuman, author of the book “How to Travel Without Seeing.”
(Magadalena Siedlecki)

Spanish-Argentine writer Andrés Neuman, one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Language Novelists, is the recipient of Spain’s most prestigious literary awards. He makes his nonfiction debut with the essay collection “How to Travel Without Seeing” (Restless Books: 224 pp., $15.99), written while traveling through Latin America. In this essay, Neuman leaves Argentina for Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. He weaves in thoughts on the authors Oliverio Coelho and Juan Carlos Onetti and how people’s identities in Latin America — particularly writers’ — are formed by language.

Buenos Aires’s Aeroparque. Midday. As I walk toward the ticket counter to fly to Montevideo, I realize that for the first time in my life I’ve forgotten my passport back in the hotel. I look through my luggage and show the employee my Spanish ID card. She shakes her head.

*

The last time I traveled to Montevideo, I was a nine-year-old boy who behaved badly for no apparent reason. We went for a club swim meet. We crossed the Río de la Plata in a catamaran. I slept in the house of a Uruguayan friend who swam faster than I did. This was in the midst of the 1986 World Cup. Coincidentally, Argentina had just eliminated Uruguay, defeating them 1-0. My friend’s house had a foosball table. One afternoon, when nobody was looking, I don’t know why, I bent all of the handles of the foosball table one by one. A few hours later the Uruguayan swimming club beat us badly. Not a single Argentinean beat a single Uruguayan. That night, on the eve of my return to Buenos Aires, I wet myself like a baby in my friend’s bed.

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When traveling to certain places, we move forward with our bodies and backwards in our memories. In other words, we advance into the past.

*

I fly again over the Río de la Plata. It’s brown and reddish, copper and muddy. And gray. The color of history. I can’t fly above these dirty waters without thinking about the Argentine airplanes that, thirty years ago, when I was still learning how to talk, threw out bodies that splashed, sunk, and disappeared. I didn’t see it. I didn’t know about it. It had to be told to my generation. That made us into guilty innocents. The plane turns. The clouds leave a stain on the river.

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As I fly toward Montevideo, I start reading a story by Oliverio Coelho that, to my surprise, takes place in Montevideo. The main character, with his tired collapse and resigned love, evokes the specter of Juan Carlos Onetti’s character Díaz Grey. Aside from a few rhetorical flourishes, the prose is refined, intense, and poetically physical. At this point, Onetti’s (rotten) breath invigorates new Argentine fiction far more than Borges.

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An impossible proposal for writers of the River Plate: avoid the adjectives “ominous,” “inveterate,” and “execrable” for ten years. To write without wanting to seem so intelligent. How modern old Hebe Uhart suddenly seems, watering the flowerpots on her patio and crossing out words in her stories.

*

As I’m getting off the plane I run into the Argentine professor and critic Josefina Ludmer, who was on my flight without my realizing it. We say hello. I ask her about one of her former students I met a few years back. She was an interesting case. Unquestionably brilliant and perfectly bilingual because of her family, she didn’t know whether to write her first novel in English or Spanish. I’m curious about her and her phantom novel. Ludmer responds that she began it in Spanish and finished it in English. Es lo ms justo, right?

*

As soon as I get to the airport, I learn that Uruguay is about to declare a weather emergency. Another alert, I say to myself, having just left behind the health alert in Argentina. But four years ago they decided not to declare an alert, and the storm devastated half of the country since they hadn’t taken the necessary precautions. What a thin line between negligence and apocalypse. An American tourist next to me vociferously demands his lost luggage.

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When traveling to certain places, we move forward with our bodies and backwards in our memories. In other words, we advance into the past.
AndrĂŠs Neuman

*

I leave the airport and run into a multitude of television cameras, flashes, and microphones coming toward me. Of course, they go right on by. The soccer team Estudiantes de la Plata was also on my flight, and tomorrow they play the Uruguayan team Nacional in the Copa Libertadores.

*

According to the news, I have arrived in Montevideo during the festivities for the centenary of Onetti’s birth. To do justice to the master, a funeral or a protest would be particularly appropriate.

*

I remember “The Shipyard,” if the word “remember” makes sense, with hazy precision. I remember having thought after finishing it, this is what Camus would have written if he had liked adjectives.

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Onetti’s oeuvre is as lasting as human pain, sadness, and desperation. Nobody has sculpted invisible realities in Spanish as he did. Nobody has found adjectives to describe our world with such an exact evil. His work is unlike anyone else’s. In life there are days, or atmospheres, or images, of which one can only think, it’s as if Onetti wrote this.

*

Hotel in Montevideo: Tryp Montevideo.

Hotel Environment: A Touch of Decay.

Reception Style: Mistrustful of Argentineans.

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Montevideo is the possibility of rain. Luckily the friendliness of the Montevideans means the possibility of some shelter.

*

Instead of “yes,” the Uruguayans say, “It’s true,” “It’s right.” The emphasis surprises me. However, they don’t say, “It’s wrong” or “It’s a lie.” They stop at “No.” Their courtesy reassures me.

*

Montevideans are porteños without the hysteria.

How to Travel Without Seeing, by author Andrés Neuman.
How to Travel Without Seeing, by author Andrés Neuman.
(Restless Books )

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“Uruguay and Argentina,” a friend tells me, “have leftist governments that will be defeated by the right that’s now gathering its strength. Here, like in nineteenth-century Europe, there will be a Restoration.”

*

On Calle Ellauri, in the wealthy, or yuppie neighborhood, we go by the Punta Carretas shopping mall, which used to be an important jail. A watchtower rises at the entrance. Milling around below, shopping, are the descendants of the jailers.

*

We cross the outskirts of the city by car. “Have you seen the film ‘Whisky’?” the driver asks. I tell him that I have and that I thought it was excellent and depressing. “Well,” says the driver pointing through the windshield, “here it is.”

*

“Son of a bitch,” someone says, “this cold is unbelievable!” “Winter is part of reality, man,” someone else responds.

*

“I returned from Buenos Aires to Montevideo,” writes the poet Daniel Viglione, “to find out what my first kiss would have been like on Montevideo’s boardwalk, with this insufferable wind.”

*

One in the morning, hotel TV. “Mr. Attorney General of Honduras,” the CNN reporter asks, “if President Zelaya truly broke the law, why didn’t you take legal action, instead of also breaking the law to depose him?” “Miss,” answers the attorney general, “you have to live in this country to understand.” And unwittingly, the attorney general summarized the whole history of Latin America in just ten words.

This essay, “Montevideo, Mate in the Cathedral,” is excerpted from “How to Travel without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America” by Andrés Neuman, translated by Jeffrey Lawrence, coming from Restless Books in August.


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