[Restless Books; 2016]
Tr. by Jeffrey Lawrence
I took a train from New York to New Orleans. In thirty hours I saw suburbs and shores in New Jersey and Maryland; forests and hills in Virginia; trees choked with kudzu in Georgia; and, in the final stretch, as the train crawled though Alabama and Mississippi, I saw flat towns and low houses and sandy patches of soil. Writing about this trip is easy: I saw things, and even if I have nothing to say, I can resort to description. In How to Travel without Seeing Andrés Neuman does not have this luxury. Neuman travels by plane through Latin America, and what he sees – or at least what he chooses to see – is mundane: airports, hotel rooms, the back seats of taxis. The joy of the book is not in seeing how Neuman travels, but in seeing how he thinks about traveling.
First published in Spanish in 2010, and just published for the first time in English, in a translation by Jeffrey Lawrence, How to Travel without Seeing recounts a book tour through Latin America. Neuman, who was born in Argentina and now lives in Spain, is the author of the well-received novels Traveller of the Century and Talking to Ourselves. Here, he tries something different: “writing as a form of a capture.” In a short introduction Neuman outlines the project:
The idea was literally to take notes at 30,000 feet. If I was going to travel on the fly, I would write that way also. If I was going to spend months in airports, hotels, and way stations, the truly aesthetic thing would be to accept this situation and search for its literary side. Not to force myself to write but to adapt at the times and the timetables. That way the form of the journey would be the same as the form of the journal.
The journey is hectic, unrelenting, with stops in Buenos Aires, Santiago, La Paz, Lima, Bogota, Mexico City, and thirteen other cities. What does this mean for the form of the journal? Fragments. Gaps. Each city has its own chapter, and each chapter consists of short, isolated paragraphs, separated by asterisks. Sometimes these paragraphs take the form of short scenes; sometimes they’re a sentence long, and they read like aphorisms: “To fly is to begin to land,” or “Here the cars are like cable cars.” The best fragments read like poetry. “Flying over Mexico City, slowly traversing its interminable gray cloud, is the closest thing I’ll ever know to landing on the moon.” “Discolored, reflexive, indeterminate Lima. Its art is a nuancing of gray.” “Two details capture the essence of the airport: there are no escalators and there are shoe-shining stalls.”
In each city the action is simple enough. Neuman boards a plane, takes a taxi, eats at a restaurant, reclines in a hotel room. He gives a reading. Watches TV. Reads. Writes. Repeats. The real action happens in Neuman’s head. Like any book constructed of fragments, whether poetry (Joe Brainard’s I Remember) or fiction (Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation) or nonfiction (David Shields’s Reality Hunger), How to Travel Without Seeing is a high-wire act: when Neuman collages disparate thoughts, and it works, the result is thrilling. When he stumbles, or when he loses momentum, you still root for him. He’ll find his rhythm in a couple of pages. It helps that Neuman keeps things varied, often shifting registers, changing topics. In La Paz he assesses his “retrospective sympathy” for Michael Jackson, and, in the next paragraph, describes a monument to the unknown soldier. Then:
Why the hell do I think of Michael Jackson in the middle of La Paz, facing the beautiful Church of San Francisco? Where am I? Where are we? Is this the meaning of globalization?
Neuman is a master of juxtaposition. And his humor, at its best, does more than make us laugh: it reveals the absurdity of the world we live in, and the world Neuman is traveling through. As the book progresses, though, and as the itinerary becomes easier to predict, Neuman’s tricks – and tics – lose some of their magic. When Neuman tries hardest for humor the result can feel forced. Often, Neuman moves toward a punchline:
On my last night off during the first part of the tour, I’m attacked by a sudden, absurd, and euphoric desire to go to a roulette table and wager all the money I have left. I ask where there’s a casino. My friends remind me that Mexican law prohibits gaming. “For that,” says one of them, “we have politics.”
It’s a good line, but the way the sentences move – the three clear beats – feels familiar by the time we reach this section, more than halfway through the book. We know the punchline is coming. The specifics vary; the rhythm does not. Repetition is central to the concept of the book, but this doesn’t change the fact that too much repetition makes for dull reading.
How to Travel without Seeing is best on a small scale: page to page, sentence to sentence. The book floats above the landscape like a plane, never quite touching down, refusing us a solid glimpse of these cities. If you’re looking for a primer on 21st century Latin America, an overview of the continent, this book isn’t it. How to Travel without Seeing does something more specialized. It’s for people interested in Latin America, people who write, or people who write about Latin America. It’s also for people who like to think about travel and travel writing. Unfortunately, the book is rarely for all of these people at once: what’s compelling to one reader – discussions of politics – may drag for another. Maybe this other reader will perk up when Neuman dissects short stories and poems. The passages on swine flu – the surest signs of the book’s age – may not be for any of these readers.
In his introduction Neuman pinpoints two contradictory aspects of travel in the twenty-first century: we experience a “particular world” in each place we visit, but the media forces us to spend time in “other places” simultaneously. If this is the case, Neuman asks, why does travel still manage to transform and teach us? According to Neuman, this “great I don’t know” is the subject of the book. It’s refreshing that Neuman embraces not knowing, that he does not “force himself to write.” On the other hand it’s hard not to wish Neuman had forced himself a bit and aimed for more than a journal. Maybe this is unfair: it’s a modest book, with modest aims, and the best thing about it is what happens after you after you read it. How to Travel without Seeing does not, necessarily, make you want to hop a plane to Argentina, Mexico, or Brazil. It makes you want to write. It makes you think: next time I travel, I will keep my own journal.
Ben Sandman was born and raised in the Catskills in upstate New York. His stories have appeared in Stirring, The Susquehanna Review, The Allegheny Review, which awarded him its prize for prose in 2014, and Stone Canoe, which awarded him the 2015 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for Fiction. He contributes to The Rumpus and Full Stop. A graduate of Vassar College, he is an MFA candidate in fiction at Oregon State University.