Contemplating Customs Forms and Hotel Service

“Our generation,” recounts Hans, the protagonist of Traveler of the Century, “was a borderline, we were the last to study before Metternich’s repression began, but we were also the first to lose faith in the Revolution.” Though Neuman himself is too young for this description to be a tidy analogy for him and his peers, it nicely sums up the position of his predecessors in Bolaño’s generation. Where the writers of the Boom had the example of the Cuban Revolution to give them hope, no comparably utopian project was available by the time their followers came of age.

Andrés Neuman has written a guide to the literature of an entire continent in the guise of a travelogue.

Andrés Neuman

Andrés Neuman. How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America. Restless Books, 2016.

In 2009, Andrés Neuman set off on a book tour after winning the Premio Alfaguara for his novel Traveler of the Century. At first, he was disappointed that each stop on the tour, stretching the Hispanic Americas from Miami to Santiago, would be so short. “But then I thought, isn’t that the point? Aren’t I going to experience, without even planning it, the very essence of contemporary tourism?” The journey resulted in How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches From the New Latin America, a fragmentary travelogue composed in short paragraphs. Knowing that he won’t have time to explore his subjects in depth, Neuman decides to record what they look like anyway “at 30,000 feet.”

This premise, somehow both rigorous and lazy, serves a double function. Thematically, it acknowledges the flattening effects of globalization, glossing over the details of “local color” that embroider the increasingly homogenous patterns of urban life. Formally, it works like an Oulipian constraint, denying him the tools of depth and patient insight in order to sharpen his immediate impressions by demanding more of them. “When an exhaustive and well-documented record of a place isn’t feasible,” Neuman writes, “we have to rely on the poetry of the immediate: to look with the radical astonishment of the first time. With a certain degree of ignorance and thus with a certain initial hunger.” In his hands, travel writing is less a genre of investigation than a probing of the author’s own capacities for attention and observation.

In effect, this means that Neuman spends more time contemplating customs forms and hotel service than local histories and geographies. His taxonomy of hotel environments and reception styles is frequently hilarious: in Venezuela he’s greeted by a “phantasmagoric” staff amidst “oil-rich Stanley Kubrick” décor, while San Salvador’s Holiday Inn offers “tense luxury” and “furtive” hospitality. Beyond the walls of his hotels, Neuman attempts to distill his impressions into pearls of epigrammatic insight, comparing Mexico City’s untamed sprawl to the “cartographic madness” of Borges’s story “On Exactitude in Science,” and opining that Santiago’s Andean isolation makes it a city “in love with itself.” Every city appears like Wandernburg, the setting of Traveler of the Century, where the streets discreetly rearrange themselves so that a visitor can never get his bearings. Before Neuman can penetrate the fog of any one of them, he’s whisked along to the next stop on his tour.

When exploring more literary realms, Neuman has the confidence of an experienced guide. In Lima, he finds himself in the Miraflores neighborhood, where many novels by Mario Vargas Llosa and Alfredo Bryce Echenique are set: “In this area one feels like one’s walking through an anthology of Peruvian literature. And yet one knows that the anthology does exactly the same thing: selects, with extreme partiality, a segment of Peruvian reality.” Neuman knows that his travels are confined by the literary nature of his project; even his way of gesturing toward the non-literary world is a reference to José Carlos Mariátegui’s classic book of social criticism Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. Though he insists he has no intention of writing “a social chronicle of the literary profession . . . one of the most self-absorbed and boring genres in existence,” that doesn’t mean he intends on wandering very far from the paths already blazed through the Americas by his fellow writers. Reading through recent books by local authors is, for him, “the shortest line between curiosity and knowledge about a place.”

If there’s a genre he feels more comfortable with than the travelogue, it’s the commonplace book. The travel writing form depends on the author’s claim to authenticity, to having gone far away and back again in order to report what she has seen, heard, and tasted abroad. Neuman, always acknowledging how little he has seen, seems more at ease with the mediated, intertextual, collage-like practice of commonplacing. Readers of his fiction will already be familiar with the tendency of his writing to gobble up other books: the lover-translator protagonists of Traveler of the Century fill their pillow talk with close readings of Keats and Novalis, and one of the narrators of Talking to Ourselves uses reading as a way of coming to terms with her husband’s death. In the course of his travels, Neuman collects scraps and quotations, brief flashes of insight caught on the page or in the street, as a way of engaging with the cities he visits without claiming to have scoured their every corner.

It would be unwise to generalize too much about the writers that Neuman cites throughout his travels. They include Roberto Bolaño and Junot Díaz, but also authors who have only recently been published in English, such as Álvaro Enrigue and Pola Oloixarac, and many more names that will only be familiar to adventurous, bilingual readers. For the most part, however, they are culled from Neuman’s contemporaries and immediate forebears, writers who didn’t begin publishing until after the ’60s “Boom” had come and gone. In a sense, they’re children of the Boom. In another sense, they’re orphans of an intellectual culture that no longer exists. “Our generation,” recounts Hans, the protagonist of Traveler of the Century, “was a borderline, we were the last to study before Metternich’s repression began, but we were also the first to lose faith in the Revolution.” Though Neuman himself is too young for this description to be a tidy analogy for him and his peers, it nicely sums up the position of his predecessors in Bolaño’s generation. Where the writers of the Boom had the example of the Cuban Revolution to give them hope, no comparably utopian project was available by the time their followers came of age.

Neuman, traveling in 2009, when the “Pink Tide” governments of Chavismo, Lulismo, and Kirchernismo were beginning to buckle, chooses to maintain the independence of his literary inheritance. He is caustic about Cuba, observing that “the Castro regime prides itself on taking measures that are basic to the function of any government: celebrating an unbiased trial, authorizing a concert, or preventing the public lynching of an opposition figure.” When he visits countries with newer, more democratic left-wing governments, he is more hesitant to take firm positions. In conversations with friends and colleagues, he takes the local political temperature of the critical elite: “In Bolivia almost all intellectuals support Evo Morales with certain reservations. In Argentina they’re divided between the government and the opposition. In Ecuador they ignore Correa with a certain disdain. In Venezuela, they resist Chávez with a dose of humor.” Neuman is reluctant to generalize about these regimes. In Argentina, he acknowledges the opacity of Peronism, with its competing political strains, to any outsider unfamiliar with the nuances of the country’s history. In Bolivia, he admits that Morales’ ascent to power is a long-overdue victory for the nation’s indigenous people, but is distressed by the grandiosity of the government’s propaganda. When he tries to ascertain whether Rafael Correa’s policies have lowered the poverty rate in Ecuador, he’s told by an unnamed acquaintance, “Our presidents limit themselves to administering oil revenues.”

Whenever Neuman turns to the news, the biggest story in the papers, aside from Michael Jackson’s death, is the fall of President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras at the hands of a military coup. Zelaya was elected in 2006 as a liberal centrist, but facing high petroleum prices and a lack of aid from the United States, turned to Venezuela, joining Chávez’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America and shifting significantly to the left on national issues. Zelaya raised the minimum wage, reformed the housing market, and introduced a process whereby citizens could directly petition their leaders. These changes earned him enemies in every branch of the government, and when Zelaya proposed a review of the national constitution, they joined forces to kidnap him and put him on a plane to Costa Rica.

Advised not to make his scheduled stop in Tegucigalpa, Neuman instead stitches together a brief chapter on the city from news stories, quotes by Honduran poets, and an email from a journalist friend who covered local resistance to the coup. In a way, the chapter takes the book’s methods to their logical conclusion: a completely secondhand word-collage about a place the author hasn’t even visited. Neuman suggests to his publisher that it might be interesting to risk entering a dangerous political situation to write about what he sees, only to be reminded, “aren’t you writing about what you aren’t seeing?” The author diligently follows the progress of events from afar, reading the news as Zelaya and coup leader Roberto Micheletti compete for the recognition and support of foreign powers. He offers no special insight into the events on the ground, only a collection of clippings that convey doubt about the country’s future and fear for its people.

Neuman’s political skepticism—declining to cheerlead left-leaning governments but fearing for what might happen when they fall—seems typical of a generation of intellectuals who have witnessed a significant strengthening of democratic institutions within the last two decades, yet are often left without a candidate they can stomach. In his case, this mistrust of political movements is sharpened by an instinctive loathing of nationalism. Much like Hans in Traveler of the Century, who spurns the anti-Napoleonic nationalism of a pedantic German professor, Neuman is revolted by any display of narrow patriotism, especially whenever it invokes the myth of martyrdom. Contemplating a memorial to the Chaco War in Bolivia, he remarks that the statue looks “closer to a sleeping boy than a bullet-ridden corpse,” and remembers singing the words to Argentina’s national anthem as a child, “We pledge to die with glory.” Wherever Neuman comes across a purported monument to patriotic self-sacrifice, he sees a national elite telling its subjects that their lives are expendable.

Neuman is therefore glad to see that “many young writers are trying to stop being the symbolic property of their countries.” The Chilean Bolaño “found a way to become Mexican,” but his followers have set themselves an even more ambitious goal: “not to be from other countries, but to not be from any.” This new wave of writers slipping the bonds of nationality is able to accommodate people like the Japanese-Peruvian-Spanish Fernando Iwasaki, who describes his literary generation as a group of “novelists born after the sixties who understand literature as an anational, eccentric and extraterritorial creation.” Neuman’s own fiction is especially unmoored: Traveler of the Century is set in a city located on the constantly shifting border of Saxony and Prussia; Talking to Ourselves unfolds across a landscape that combines features of Spain and Argentina; and the stories collected in The Things We Don’t Do are often vaguely sketched enough to take place just about anywhere.

This approach is not without its pitfalls. In renouncing the nation, writers often end up taking a step back from political engagement itself; the global republic of letters grants many freedoms but few powers. Recalling Rafael Trujillo’s fictional portrait in Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, Neuman reflects, “In the long run, fiction assails institutions more effectively than armies.” Neuman appears naive and feckless: if literature has as much political power as he claims, why doesn’t he wield it more forcefully? How to Travel Without Seeing takes ambivalent swipes at an array of targets—neoliberalism, authoritarianism, patriotism, militarism—without ever connecting these dots into a thorough diagnosis of Latin America’s political trends and countercurrents. The less fragmentary Traveler of the Century uses a series of centuries-old debates to articulate a present-tense political outlook—social-democratic, cosmopolitan, feminist, and secular—that remains admirable but not exactly groundbreaking.

Neuman is ultimately a writer stirred more by language than politics. He remains expertly attuned to the linguistic differences that divide place from place, not only in literature but in everyday speech as well. In Bolivia, he notes that the ubiquity of the phrase “they say” harkens back to a quirk of the native Aymara language, which makes quasi-journalistic demands on the recounting of any secondhand information: unless you personally witnessed his death, “you can’t say, ‘Michael Jackson died.’ You would have to say, ‘They say that Michael Jackson died.’” In Paraguay he discovers the hybrid languages of Jopara (Guaraní-Spanish) and Portuñol (Spanish-Portuguese). In Puerto Rico he hears a language that is “simultaneously familiar and strange,” peppered with cognates derived from English. One risk of world literature as it’s conceived and practiced today is that, as Tim Parks writes, “style will align with what can readily be translated more or less into multiple languages and cultural settings, or into a readily intelligible international idiom.” Though the vague archaisms of Traveler of the Century are vulnerable to this line of criticism, How to Travel Without Seeing suggests that its author is capable of moving in the opposite direction, searching out the linguistic customs that remain enclosed within particular sub-national cultures. In breaking down monolithic “Spanish” into its local dialects and idioms, Neuman’s travelogue works against the Esperanto-like generality that Parks fears.

How to Travel Without Seeing may even be a better book appearing in English in 2016 than it was a Spanish one published in 2010. Its failings, almost all of which the author admits upfront, are now overshadowed by its value as a guide to the under-translated contemporary literature of an entire continent. Neuman and his translator Jeffrey Lawrence have collaborated on a sort of miniature anthology, one that sketches a broad context that can begin to introduce anglophone readers to the realities of today’s Latin America. Even Neuman’s methods of treating those realities, the book’s obvious shortcoming, seem more valuable with the translation of time: newspaper clippings from six years ago are apt to tell us more than the same clippings would six months after publication. As a final sign of the book’s transformation, Lawrence and his publisher have elected to replace the Spanish edition’s subtitle “Latinoamérica en tránsito” with the more definitive-sounding “Dispatches From the New Latin America.” The difference is telling: while the former suggests the inconclusive drift of both a traveler and the region he traverses, the latter advertises a package that has landed on the reader’s lap at the end of its journey. Perhaps Neuman would consider it a triumph then, that his book is ultimately most valuable when its subjects are seen from a distance much greater than 30,000 feet.

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