Podcast transcript

Podcast transcript

A Talk with Andrés Neuman

 Andrés Neuman

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There is also a podcast interview in Spanish available at the LTU podcast blog

Benjamin Habib

I'm Benjamin Habib, lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, and you’re listening to a La Trobe University podcast.

Matt Smith

Hello. Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I'm Matt Smith and today is an interview with Andrés Neuman, a writer from Argentina and Spain. He’s a young man but he’s already written five novels and he’s also written poetry, short stories and essays as well. His fourth novel called Traveler of the Century was translated into English and released in 2012. He was in town for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and he’s been interviewed by Dr Lilit Thwaites who’s an honorary researcher associate in Spanish at La Trobe University.

Lilit Thwaites

What we’re going to do is have a short conversation where we’ll touch on a number of topics to do with the first novel of yours that was published in English, Traveller of the Century, which covers a number of topics including links between translation, words and love and so I thought I'd ask Andrés just to read a short paragraph from that novel, to get us going.

Andrés Neuman

Yeah. Of course, it would be a pleasure and indeed the links between translation and love or between even sexual desire and the anxiousness of the translator’s searching for a word, after falling in love with someone or something that we call book, is in the very heart of this novel Traveller of the Century, so this is the excerpt in which both main characters Hans and Sophie, begin to translate together but not only that, but some other things too.

“During the four hours they spend alone three times a week, Hans and Sophie alternated between books and bed, and then books, exploring one another in words and reading one another’s bodies. Thus, inadvertently, they developed a shared language re-writing what they read, translating one another mutually. The more they worked together, the more similarities they discovered between love and translation, understanding a person and translating a text, returning a poem in a different language and putting into words what the other was feeling.

Both exercises were as happy as they were incomplete. Doubts always remained, words that needed changing, missed nuances – they were both aware of the impossibility of achieving transparency as lovers, and as translators. Cultural, political, biographical and sexual differences acted as a filter. The more they tried to counter them, the greater the danger, obstacles, misunderstandings and yet, at the same time, the bridges between the languages, between them, became broader and broader.

Sophie discovered she had similar feelings when she made love to Hans and when she was translating. She thought she knew exactly what she wanted, what she desired, but then her certainties began to melt away, leaving fervent, conflicting intuations to which she surrendered without worrying about the result.

Later, she would experience a strange fleeting lucidity, sudden bursts of light that would enable her to discover what she had been searching for, a definitive meaning, the precise feeling, the exact words. Then she would close her eyes, and feel she was about to embrace an enormous sphere, to wrap her arms around it, to understand. Then, just as she was reaching the heights and was preparing to write, or to speak to Hans from up there, the idea would unravel and this fear would slip from her grasp, shattering into a thousand pieces, and although Sophie knew that no trembling emotion, no poem could be rendered in other words, because its totality was unattainable, her only wish was to begin again.” (pp. 335-36)

Lilit Thwaites

It seems to me that your life and your writing, at least the ones that we’re looking at, the book we’re looking at now, are dominated by travel – travel, being in different places, experiencing different cultures, feeling perhaps a little ambiguous about how these cultures translate from one to the other.

Andrés Neuman

Yeah, exactly. Because I don’t feel that I am travel writer in a traditional way. I mean, I am not Bruce Chatwin in any way. I wish I was, but I am not, so it’s not travel as a way of moving geographically talking necessarily. You can find some of that stuff in my books, but it’s more, rather the travelling as a question about identity or where we belong to. Or even the impossibility of belonging to a place. So it’s more about foreign people, I would say that my writing is practically the narrative part of my work, somehow talks all the time about people who are foreign in all possible senses. A foreigner according to how?? the others expect them to be a foreigner, according to some national code, foreigners in terms of being out of home, but always a strangeness towards one’s own identity, I would say.

Lilit Thwaites

Which in this novel, Traveller of the Century, in fact is partly reflected in the fact that the town to which Hans, who is a traveller, comes, also seems quite unstable.

Andrés Neuman

Yeah, it’s a shifting city we could say. It’s mad. It’s slightly moving all the time. It’s not an obvious thing during the plot, because I didn’t want to move towards the territory of the science fiction. I am not particularly interested in it. But I did want some drops of mystery about the physical nature of this city, as if approaching to Calvino’s territory, more conceptual spaces, where a space turns into a metaphor. So I was thinking about a city in which nobody was really sure if the streets slightly moved. Meaning that it’s Monday and you go for a coffee and you go uphill and turn left, and maybe a week later you come back to this café and suddenly you should turn right and you’re not sure if your memory was wrong, or it’s the place which is changing but gradually, this happens all the time to several of the inhabitants of the city, particularly to the ones who were not born there, and there you’ve got a possible metaphor of the impossibility of belonging to a place and getting to know it as if it was yours. I would say there is an essential difference between travellers and conquerors. Could we divide history between those who stay and those who move or travel? And I suggested that yes, we could do that but we could always split the second category, those who move into sub-categories, the ones who move in order to possess a new place, the people who arrive to a new place and say, this should be mine. And those other people who know that they will never possess this new land, and they feel a marvellous sensation of not belonging.

So a traveller would be a person who says, this will never be mine, and a conqueror is a person who thinks, just arrived, this should be mine too.

Lilit Thwaites

There’s also, in this novel, in a sense, a travel in time. Because while it’s set quite clearly in the nineteenth century, but there are many, many references also to now, to Europe now, to Spain now.

Andrés Neuman

Yeah, that’s true. It is happening, I mean the frame, the plot, appears to be happening during the nineteenth century, to be more exact, even though no-one heeds this information, but I myself took as orientation the year in which Wilhelm Mueller died. Wilhelm Mueller was the poet with whom Schubert worked to get together to compose Winterreise, “Traveller of the Century”, so that’s a mistranslation, but an interesting one. Winterreise, Winter Journey, winter journey. And I took a quotation from this beautiful cycle of songs for my novel, Traveller of the Century and so the whole novel is a kind of imaginary development of some of the characters who appears in Winter Journey.

So I took an inner hidden reference, 1827 as the very start of the novel, just because the poet and friend of Schubert, died in this year, but it just so happens that in this year he wrote the words through a very interesting moment, and quite a horrible moment too, which was what we could call the post-Utopia moment, after the fall of Napoleon. Europe entered into a state of regressive politics, very conservative laws, and a loss too of freedoms. So it was like a step back, after the failure of Napoleon. And I was interested in doing permanent parallels between Europe of Metternich and the Europe of Merkel, let’s say. All the novel tries to mirror the situation of nineteenth century towards a nowadays situation. I wasn’t interested at all in reproducing archaeologically the real life of Germany two hundred?? years ago. Who cares? I mean, but how could we read those times from now? Not only in terms of history and politics, but as well, in terms of literature, of writing. I mean, what did the great novelists of that time do, what kind of research did they use? And which tools they used could be familiar or useful for us, the readers, nowadays.

So it’s a dialogue of the grasping of the nineteenth century novel, slow, psychological development being very much the attention to the details, a kind of a patient structure etc etc. You know, slow romances, but at the same time, a kind of foreign approach to sex, very quick dialogues, where everybody talks at the same time, like in a radio broadcast and not consecutively.

Lilit Thwaites

It’s quite difficult to construct. You’ve done it amazingly well because when you read it, you read it as if you were there, hearing the conversation and interruptions ...

Andrés Neuman

It was one of most difficult things to achieve, in case I did, in the novel, because I didn’t want to have these consecutive dialogues which are not all that usual in the nineteenth century, but not disappointingly enough, nowadays. Nobody, almost nobody seems to be influenced by the sensation of real dialogues nowadays, in the TV or in radio. We know that everybody can talk at the same time and the new events, let’s say, what’s up, are constantly based on the idea that you can have a dialogue with many people more or less at the same time. So the fiction I think should reflect the simultaneity no matter if the plot is supposed to take place in the nineteenth century or nowadays. When you do a film, a film which takes place in the First World War, you don’t use one or two cameras, in black and white, you know, with no technology at all, just to the faithful to the time. No. On the contrary. You say, how could I film a very modern cinema film that tells an ancient story or an old story.

Okay, so this was the same. Why historical novels too often sacrifice the old which happened, from the avant garde, all that happened with surrealism, experimental researches, everything that comes after Joyce, just because it’s supposed to be a historical novel. There are some exceptions to these. You can say Grescia, you can think about Vargas Llosa, you can think about Yourcenar, but 99% of historical novels seem to be very old fashioned in its form. And I was interested in the opposite strategy. You are seeing radio dialogues, you are seeing as you pointed, very particular system of brackets, opening and closing all the time, so introducing an interaction which is supposed to be simultaneous and the syntax contains all kinds of voices and interactions. You see some points of view very much like the animated cinema for example, narrating from the wings point of view. Everything can be seen from the point of view of the wind, something that you can imagine only from the modern, animated technology, and using of course, metaphors, more in the line of surrealist poetry than in the traditional description of landscapes and everything.

So, yes, it was a balance between how much we can still learn from the masters of that period, which I still love, and how our visual and rhythmical consciousness has changed since then.

Matt Smith

That was Spanish author Andrés Neuman, being interviewed by Dr Lilit Thwaites. There’s another interview that they conducted in Spanish and it’s available in the European Studies collection on iTunes U and also from our blog, that’s at podcast.blogs.latrobe.edu.au. That’s it for the La Trobe University podcast today. I'm Matt Smith. You’ve been fantastic and thanks for listening.

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