Review: The Things We Don't Do

In the tradition of Borges and Franz Kafka


By Andrés Neuman (Trans: Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia)
Pushkin Press, £8.99

The son of Argentine émigré musicians, Andrés Neuman was born in Buenos Aires but now lives in Spain. He has written five novels, four books of short stories and this is his third book to be translated. Neuman has started to be much talked about in literary circles, receiving growing critical acclaim. This new book of short stories could be his breakthrough book.

The Things We Don't Do consists of almost 40 stories, many of them very short indeed. The style is flat, neutral. The stories are mostly set in the present, rarely with any kind of history or back-story. They could be anywhere in Europe or South America, and at almost any time in the past 10 years. A man is being tortured or is considering suicide. We don't know why. The characters themselves give away little sense of their inner lives.

Like Kafka, Neuman is not interested in psychology. And yet these stories have a fascinating grip and pack an emotional punch.

This is partly because of the violence that runs through them, a sort of passive-aggressive violence. Words like "mocking", "scoffed", "maliciously" pop up here and there. "I hate you more than anyone in the world, Elias wanted to howl," Neuman writes in one story, which, typically, is about how compatible a couple is, so compatible that, eventually, they break up.

The best stories are about couples or, rather, the space between couples. There is often barely a plot. What matters is what people say (or don't say) to each other.

In A Line in the Sand, Ruth draws a line in the sand defying Jorge to cross it. We don't know why, just that if he does cross it this will trigger off something between them. Nothing happens, and yet you feel Neuman is describing something very true about relationships.

There is another group of stories that are not about the space between people, but what happens when there is not enough space between people, when people merge into one another in a way that leads to madness or a kind of symbiosis. One story is about a mental patient and a psychiatrist but you soon begin to realise you don't know which is which.

You wouldn't call Neuman's flat prose beautiful but here and there certain words seem to have a disturbing quality. The stories feel strange or alien. There are echoes of some of the great modernist short-story writers - Borges as well as Kafka - but Neuman has a voice that is very much his own.

In one story, the narrator talks of "a violent sweetness". He could be describing Neuman's stories.

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