«Observing others is as important as reading Tolstói, Virginia Woolf or Bolaño»



Lucy Popescu: You published your first novel aged only 22. What prompted you to write fiction?

Andrés Neuman: Without wanting to sound tragic at all, I think one reason was the certainty of death. Or, to be more precise, the difficulty of accepting the idea of death. I remember that I was especially interested in the life of characters: Did they die or not? Did they keep on living after the end of the book? I felt that, by inventing stories, one could, in a way, rehearse one’s own death. Writing (let’s say) shapes time, and we don’t have much. The other reason was, of course, no less important: Fiction gives me, and still gives me, huge pleasure. When I write or read fiction, I pay more attention to reality. Which means that I live it twice.

LP: Do you consider yourself primarily a poet or novelist and in which literary genre do you find it easiest to write?

AN: I consider myself primarily as a curious writer. So I try to skip from one form to another, from one genre to another. As far as I’m concerned, style only consists in searching for a style. Endlessly. If you know exactly how you write, you stop wondering about it. Any genre is, or should be, easier. In my opinion, all of them should be enjoyably difficult to write. But I don’t actually believe in literary genres. Not in pure terms. As happens with nationalities, I’m much more interested in inhabiting the borders. I like poems capable of creating characters, short stories capable of exploring language, novels that contain ideas, essays that tell stories. Impure texts, impure people.

LP: The only thing you don’t seem to have written yet is plays. Are you tempted?

AN: Tempted, yes. And I’m particularly interested in the mechanism of dialogue and how a conversation can fill a space. But I respect theatre too much, and know I lack the necessary knowledge and experience about the stage. In fact, I wrote a play ten years ago or so. And I had the good taste to break it into pieces. That was a good move.

LP: You describe your novel, Traveller of the Century as “an ambitious experiment: it invites us to look at the 19th Century with 21st-Century eyes. A novel that recovers the inspiration of classic narrative, written from a contemporary approach. A post-modern reading of Romanticism, set in post-Napoleonic times, in an imaginary city of Germany. A dialogue between the Europe of the Restoration and the political plans of the European Union. A narrative bridge spanning the past and the global problems of our present: in migration, multiculturalism, nationalisms, emancipation of women.” How do you turn your research into a novel?

AN: Well, that was the publisher’s blurb! Who knows how much of it is true. But I like the specific question about how research can be turned into narrative. To me that point was extremely important, because I had no interest at all in writing a “History” book. I only cared about the invention of the characters and the prose. In fact, I tried to commit a kind of sabotage of what we usually call a historical novel: there isn’t any “real” episode, place or character in the book. Everything is like a slow dream, a sort of oasis of fiction in the middle of the documented History. Which of course I needed to study first, but not in order to reproduce it. A novelist friend of mine told me one day: “we study just to get a permission to invent”. I happily agree with that.

LP: Traveller of the Century takes us around the world and back in time. How hard is it to write from different historical perspectives and across borders?

AN: To be honest, I hate historical novels. Especially those that talk about ancient times with no trace of a political or ideological connection to nowadays. So my intention was to recreate the 19th Century novel, which I adore, from a contemporary point of view and state of language. I tried to use certain techniques and resources that could be clearly identified by the reader as non-19th Century (sudden interruptions, surrealist images, multiple and simultaneous dialogues, pastiches, explicit sexual descriptions) mixed with very classical ones (psychological introspection, strong attention to details, solid structures, etc). Was it hard? It was fun!

LP: After Helena, your contribution to Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish Novelists, is about rivalry between academics that turns to hatred. What inspired this story?

AN: I don’t think the story is really about rivalry between academics. That would be boring (and too common, I’m afraid!) I think it is more about loss. Loss, hate and forgiveness. The narrator (who is, yes, a teacher) has just lost his beloved wife, and doesn’t know what to do with his own feelings; with his deep love, that now has no addressee. And with it he suffers a terrible anger that he directs towards his enemies. But suddenly, one strange day, the character decides to forgive all his enemies. Why? Maybe the answer is in the story.

LP: How autobiographical are the stories you tell?

AN: The ones that seem more autobiographical are not, and vice versa. If I use a direct “I”, then I tend to lie in order to protect me. And if I use the third person, then I feel more able to reflect my intimacy. When Flaubert said “Madame Bovary c’est moi”, I don’t think he was saying only that in a novel the main characters are a reflection of its author. But also, and more importantly, that story-tellers need to commit to understanding and “being” every single character they invent, no matter their age, gender or time.

LP: You currently live in Granada, Spain. As a writer, is the Spanish language now your homeland or do you retain your Argentinean identity?

AN: I suspect it’s dangerous to think about “retaining” your identity, whatever it is. To me, one's identity is a work in progress. It is not something that was there before you moved. Maybe, on the contrary, it is exactly what started to get a shape when you started to move. Is my mother language a homeland? I am tempted to answer yes, but when I think about Conrad, Nabokov, Becket, Bianciotti, Wilcock, Copi or Cioran (who expanded as writers when they changed their languages) I realize that our literary homeland is always a foreign, sweet home. The idea is to not feel at home when we are writing. And to write precisely to find out where the hell we were.

LP: Who have been your biggest literary influences?

AN: My neighbours. Observing others is as important as reading Tolstói, Virginia Woolf or Bolaño.

LP: Who do you consider to be the best Latin Americans writing today?

AN: Apart from the ones that Granta included on its list, I’d like to mention a few young writers that are a bit older than 35. Among others: Guadalupe Nettel, Yuri Herrera and Álvaro Enrigue, from México. Pedro Mairal, Mariana Enríquez and Ariel Magnus, from Argentina. Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Ricardo Silva and Pilar Quintana, from Colombia. Pablo Casacuberta, from Uruguay. Rodrigo Blanco, from Venezuela. Claudia Hernández, from El Salvador. Ena Lucía Portela, from Cuba. So many.

LP: What’s your next literary project?

AN: To survive.

(Interview originally published in Latineos -Latin America, Caribbean, arts & culture, 9 January 2011)
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