Talking to Ourselves: A Novel
by Andrés Neuman
"'Writing about illness,' I underlined last night in an essay by Roberto Bolano, 'especially if one is seriously ill oneself, can be an ordeal. But it is also a liberating act,' I hope this applies to us caregivers too, 'exercising the tyranny of illness,' this is something we never talk about," (p 81)
I was impressed with the mastery the author had over the voices of the three characters who tell the story in this small but profound novel. As the title suggests, the story is told by each of the characters in turn through a narrative of what they are telling themselves. This is accomplished through successive chapters devoted to each of the characters.
The father, Mario is dying of cancer. His decision to share a last few meaningful days with his 10-year-son Lito, results in a road trip in his brother’s truck. His wife Elena remains at home, seeking solace in books. Elena keeps a journal of her life, Mario records his thoughts on a series of tapes to leave for his son, and the son Lito, unaware of his father’s true illness, recounts the road trip in glorious detail. Lito’s humorous observations sounded very true to me with references to video games and dreams of riding in convertibles. They demonstrate the skill of the author as he lightens the darker material and provides a vivid sense of a 10-year-old’s voice and preoccupations.
In an attempt to make sense of her husband's impending death and her own turbulent emotions, Elena devours books and notes quotations from the authors she reads. These include John Banville, Roberto Bolaño, Javíer Marias and Virginia Woolf. In On Being Ill, Woolf declares “let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry”. Woolf’s question, why “illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature,” is just as relevant today.
After entering an intense sexual relationship with her husband’s doctor, Elena experiences shame and guilt but cannot stop herself. As Neuman suggests, grief has its own, often impenetrable, logic. When Mario is finally hospitalized Elena remarks “[p]ity has its own way of destroying”. She contemplates the horror of having lost all desire for Mario, feeling disgust, and yet still loving him: “He has shadows under his eyes, drawn features, no belly. There is a paleness about him that doesn't seem to come from a lack of sunshine, but from somewhere deeper. A sort of white glow beneath the skin. There, between his ribs.”
The multitude of emotions experienced on the death of a loved one are difficult if not impossible to describe. The right words seldom come to you and the result is a form of emotional isolation. The feelings consume you suddenly--on a moments notice.
I was drawn to this novel by Andrés Neuman because I enjoyed his previous award-winning Traveller of the Century. Talking to Ourselves, while a miniature by comparison, is articulate and profound, providing a meditation on illness, death and bereavement. It suggests ways that one may use literature to confront and understand mortality. As a reader I enjoyed it as much as his first novel and look forward to more from his pen.
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