Talking to Ourselves: A Novel

Overview

A searing family drama from one of Latin America's most original voicesOne trip. Two love stories. Three voices.

Lito is ten years old and is almost sure he can change the weather when he concentrates very hard. His father, Mario, anxious to create a memory that will last for his son’s lifetime, takes him on a road trip in a truck called Pedro. But Lito doesn’t know that this might be their last trip: Mario is gravely ill. Together, father and son embark on a journey takes them ...

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Overview

A searing family drama from one of Latin America's most original voicesOne trip. Two love stories. Three voices.

Lito is ten years old and is almost sure he can change the weather when he concentrates very hard. His father, Mario, anxious to create a memory that will last for his son’s lifetime, takes him on a road trip in a truck called Pedro. But Lito doesn’t know that this might be their last trip: Mario is gravely ill. Together, father and son embark on a journey takes them through strange geographies that seem to meld the different parts of the Spanish-speaking world. In the meantime, Lito’s mother, Elena, restlessly seeks support in books, and soon undertakes an adventure of her own that will challenge her moral limits. Each narrative—of father, son, and mother—embodies one of the different ways that we talk to ourselves: through speech, through thought, and through writing. While neither of them dares to tell the complete truth to the other two, their individual voices nonetheless form a poignant conversation.

Sooner or later, we all face loss. Andrés Neuman movingly narrates the ways the lives of those who survive loss are transformed; how that experience changes our ideas about time, memory, and our own bodies; and how the acts of reading, and of sex, can serve as powerful modes of resistance. Talking to Ourselves presents a tender yet unsentimental portrait of the workings of love and family; a reflection both on grief and on the consolation of words. Neuman, the author of the award-winning Traveler of the Century, displays his characteristic warmth, bittersweet humor, and wide-ranging intellect, giving us the rich, textured, and strikingly different voices and experiences of three singular characters while presenting, above all, a profound tribute to those who have ever had to care for a loved one.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 12/23/2013
Appealing to both intellect and emotion, this splendid novel from Neuman (Traveler of the Century) grapples with important questions and features well-developed, nuanced characters. Mario, a trucker, takes his 10-year-old son, Lito, on a delivery run. Lito, Mario, and Lito's mother, Elena, take turns narrating, giving the story a full range of perspectives. Mario is extremely sick but is hiding this fact from Lito. Dr. Escalante, Mario's doctor, becomes an object of desire for Elena, though she loathes herself for being attracted to him. She also feels guilt over her lack of desire for Mario, whose illness has affected his appearance. Elena deals with her feelings by, among other things, immersing herself in books. Meanwhile, on the road, Mario attempts to give Lito a lasting memory of the trip. The unflinching gazes of Neuman's characters drive this slim novel. Joy, regret, hope... it's all here. Agent: Jacoba Casier, Guillermo Schavelzon & Asociados. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
2014-02-10
This fifth novel, and second in an English translation (following Travels of the Century, 2012), from the Spanish author, born in Argentina, explores an impending death from cancer and how it affects three family members. Mario has terminal cancer. He and his wife, Elena, have kept it a secret from their 10-year-old son, Lito. The three take turns voicing their thoughts. Neuman keeps context to a minimum, never even identifying the Latin American country in which the story is set. Mario was a travel agent who later joined the family trucking business. Since he is enjoying a temporary respite, he indulges Lito by taking him along in the truck on his last business trip (merchandise unknown), hoping this will create a beautiful memory for the boy. Lito enjoys traveling, but it's a remarkably uneventful long haul, save for a brief encounter in a bar with a guy claiming to be a magician. The boy is fascinated, but Mario hurries him out of there, suspecting the guy is a pedophile. The real action is on the homefront. Elena begins having sex with Ezequiel Escalante, the doctor who is treating Mario and who is separated from his wife. She loves her husband but not his ravaged body. She needs a buffer against mortality, and Ezequiel provides it; her orgasms are "monstrous." Opposing sex to death is nothing new, of course, and Neuman provides no insights of his own, preferring to rely on the words of the many writers Elena cites. But it's clear that this is Elena's story, and the monologues of her husband and son distract from it. A slight work, on both the personal and metaphysical level.
From the Publisher
Praise for Talking to Ourselves

“This triptych of a dying man's commitment to his family and their response will infuse readers with its poignant, realistic experience.” —Lawrence Olszewski, Library Journal

“An intimate and honest portrait of estranged love and inevitable loss in taut, exacting prose . . . Neuman’s pitch-perfect, sympathetic characters create an intensely moving story that resists both saccharine sentimentality and easy closure. This nuanced juxtaposition of perspectives solidifies Neuman’s place in the Spanish-language literary pantheon.” —Diego Báez, Booklist (starred review)

“[A] gem of a novel, Talking to Ourselves is a profound meditation on illness, death and bereavement and brilliantly illustrates literature’s ability to help readers confront and understand mortality . . . Neuman is a master craftsman.” —Lucy Popescu, The Independent

“This is writing of a quality rarely encountered, which actually feels as though it touches on reality, translating something experienced into words, without loss of detail or clarity. That shouldn't be rare but when you read Neuman's beautiful novel, you realise a very high bar has been set.” —Jane Housham, The Guardian

“An exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.” —Jeremy Garber, Three Percent “At the heart of this braided tale is a profound grief, but at the heart of that grief is the ecstatic joy of living. We come to see how lives are built out of passing detail, the flicker of small incidents, the intervention of literature, and the trace of forgotten things. Talking to Ourselves is both brilliant and wise, and Andrés Neuman is destined to be one of the essential writers of our time.” —Teju Cole, author of Open City

“Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work.” —The Millions “Moving and intelligent.” —Justin Alvarez, The Paris Review

 

“Appealing to both intellect and emotion, this splendid novel from Neuman (Traveler of the Century) grapples with important questions and features well-developed, nuanced characters . . . Joy, regret, hope—it’s all here.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

 

“A novelist of rare talent . . . at the book's end, the reader wishes for more pages: to see Lito grow up, to see if Elena remakes her life . . . That happens when the writer has the touch of a poet.” —Grazia Giordani, L'Arena

 

“There are many reasons to love Andrés Neuman . . . The biggest reason is, of course, his writing. In Talking to Ourselves . . . he gives a luminous confirmation of this . . .  Each character talks to himself, but in the end they speak for all of us.” —Riccardo Staglianò, La Reppublica

 

“An exciting and risky literary adventure, brought to life with remarkable stylistic subtlety . . . Rich, complex, and playful, this novel by Andrés Neuman is, by far, one of the most valuable and stylistically substantial literary works I've read in recent years.” —Carlo Algeri, El Gran Otro

 

“[Neuman] is not only capable of navigating different genres, writing works both long or short, and locating himself in eras both distant or contemporary, he also has a great delicacy in taking the reader by the hand to the frontiers of pain.” —Elena Méndez, Siempre México

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374167530
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 147,406
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrés Neuman was born in 1977 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and grew up in Spain. Neuman was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and was elected to the Bogotá-39 list. Traveler of the Century (FSG, 2012) was the winner of the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize, Spain’s two most prestigious literary awards, as well as a special commendation from the jury of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Neuman has taught Latin American literature at the University of Granada.

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Read an Excerpt

Lito

 

 

Then I start to sing, and my mouth gets bigger. It makes Dad laugh to see how happy I am. But Mom doesn’t laugh.

I’d been pestering them about it now for ages. Every summer. They always said the same thing. When you’re older. I hate it when they say that. I picture a long line of kids with me at the end. This time they argued. Not out loud. They waved their arms around a lot. They shut themselves in the kitchen. It really annoys me when they do that. The kitchen belongs to all of us! I put my ear to the door. I couldn’t hear much. After a while they came out again. Mom had a serious face. She looked out of the window. She blew her nose. Then she came over and kissed my bangs. Dad asked me to sit down with him. Like we were having a real talk. He squeezed my hands and said: You’re a man now, Lito, we’re going. And I started bouncing up and down on the sofa.

I try to stay calm. Well, I’m a man now, right? I pull down my T-shirt and sit properly. I ask Dad when we’re leaving. Right now, he says. Right now! I can’t believe it. I run up to my room. I open and close drawers. I drop my clothes on the floor. Mom helps me pack my backpack. This is going to be awesome. For sure. Totally. This is the kind of stuff that starts happening to you when you’ve turned ten.

All three of us go down to the garage. It always smells bad in here. I switch the lights on. And there’s Uncle Juanjo’s truck. Shiny. Like new. Dad starts checking the tires. The engine. The oil. Does Dad know about things like that? Mom puts my backpack on the front seat. Right there. On the navigator’s seat. I don’t know what to say. We’re silent until Dad’s finished. His fingers are black. They look like insects. He washes his hands slowly. Then he climbs into the cab. He takes out his wallet and puts a photo of Mom on the mirror. She rubs her eyes.

It takes us ages to leave. We say goodbye and everything. Mom whispers in Dad’s ear. She keeps hugging me. Oof. Finally we climb into the truck. Dad immediately straps me in. But he doesn’t strap himself in. He examines some papers. Looks at a map. He writes stuff down. Suddenly the engine makes a noise. The door lifts up and the garage fills with light. I can’t see Mom waving anymore. Well! Dad says, banging the steering wheel, let’s hope Pedro brings us luck. Why is it called Pedro? I ask. Because it’s a Peterbilt, son, he replies. What’s that got to do with anything? I insist. Dad roars with laughter and puts his foot down on the accelerator. I hate people laughing at me when I ask questions.

I see the roofs of the cars go by. It’s like being in a helicopter with wheels. One day I’ll drive Pedro. Totally. I always watch the way Uncle Juanjo does it. There are hundreds of buttons everywhere. But they really only use three or four. The hardest thing has to be steering. What happens, for instance, if you’re supposed to turn one way and you turn the other by mistake? All the rest looks easy because Dad doesn’t seem to pay much attention to it. It’s like he’s thinking about something else. But I’m not going to tell Mom that. They always fight in the car. It’d be great to hold the wheel. But I know that’s not possible when you’re ten. I’m not stupid. We’d get a ticket.

It’s superhot up here. I guess because we’re so high up the sun is hotter. I try turning up the air-conditioning. I play with the buttons Dad played with when we were leaving. He pulls a face and turns it down again. I turn it up again. He turns it down again. Dad’s really annoying. I ask him, just in case: Will you teach me how to drive? Dad smiles, then goes all serious. When you’re older, he sighs. Just as I thought. It’s illegal, isn’t it? I say. That’s not the reason, gun-toting mollusk, Dad replies. Why then? I ask, surprised. He keeps me guessing. Why? Why? I ask again. Dad takes a hand off the steering wheel, lifts his arm slowly (a red car passes us real fast, red cars are great, I prefer convertibles, a red convertible would be awesome, I wonder how the owners stop their hair from getting mussed up, or maybe they all have it cut short?, of course, that must be it, but what about the women, then?), Dad stays like that, hand in the air, until I turn to look at him again. Then points his forefinger at me. No. Not at me. Lower down. He’s pointing at my sneakers. That’s why, he says. I don’t get it. It has to do with my sneakers? Your legs, champ, Dad says, how do you think you’re going to reach the pedals? Actually, I hadn’t thought of that. What if I wore high heels like Mom? But I don’t say that because I’m embarrassed.

We leave Pampatoro behind. The bar was really gross. The food was yummy. It had tons of ketchup. There are no more trees. The countryside is yellow. It’s like the light is burning the ground. I read a sign: TUCUMANCHA. There are loads of rocks along the sides of the highway. Orange-colored rocks like bricks. Where do bricks come from? Do people make them? Or do they grow inside rocks and people cut them into squares? Pedro is very close to the edge of the highway. Dad is braking in a weird way. His back is very straight and he’s gripping the steering wheel with both hands. It reminds me of World Force Rally 3 (the music on the radio stops for the news, they read out: so many people dead, so many injured, the number of injured people is bigger than that of dead people, but what if some of the injured people die, do they change the numbers?, do they read them out again?, the music Dad has on is a bit boring, it’s all old stuff), that video game has some great circuits, there’s one full of rocks like a huge desert. Besides crossing it, you also have to dodge animals and shoot at Arabs who attack you. If you don’t kill them quickly, they leap on your car, smash the windshield, and stab you. It’s awesome. Once I nearly beat the highest score. But I turned over at the final corner, lost a life, and got points deducted. Rally games are my speciality. Maybe it’s because Uncle Juanjo has the truck. And without realizing it, I’ve learned too. Actually, now that I think of it, there aren’t any pedals in World 3.

Dad, I say, did you know there’s a game where the landscape is exactly like this? Really, he replies. It’s one of my favorites, I tell him, the hardest thing is dodging the wild animals without driving off the track. Aha, Dad says, and if you drive off, what happens? You overturn, I tell him, and you lose time. What else? he says. Poor Dad doesn’t know a thing about video games. And then you lose lots of places, I explain, and have to overtake them all again. Unless you find a supercharged engine or some extra-slick tires of course. Is that all? Dad’s being really annoying. What? I reply, you think it’s easy dodging animals, killing Arabs, changing an engine, and overtaking everyone else without crashing into the rocks? No, no, he says, I’m asking what else happens when you have an accident, I mean, do you get hurt? Do people help you? Do you get to sit out a few races or what? Video games don’t work like that, Dad, I sigh. I give up. I’m not going to argue with someone who wouldn’t even be able to beat the top score in World 1. I start fiddling with the radio until I find some better music. I look at Dad out of the corner of my eye. He doesn’t say anything. We pass another sign: MÁGINA DEL CAMPO, 27 KM. There are no more rocks. The sun is almost level with Pedro. Now there are wire fences. Tractors. Cows. If we hit one, I’ll have to restart the game.

Are you hungry? asks Dad. No, I reply. A bit, maybe. We’ll stop again soon, Dad says, looking at the map, that’s enough for today. Then he stretches his arms (I don’t think he should let go of the steering wheel, Mom always says that to him in the car, and Dad tells her he knows what he’s doing, and Mom says if he knew what he was doing he wouldn’t let go of the steering wheel, and Dad says she can drive next time, and Mom says he’s unbearable when she drives, and they both go on like that for a while), he bends forward, twists his neck, sighs. His face looks tired. Hey, I say, why don’t we eat some of what’s in the back? No, Lito, no, Dad laughs, we have to deliver the goods intact. Besides, everything’s packed into boxes. And counted. One by one? I ask. One by one, he says. And they count everything again after we’ve made the delivery? I ask. I really don’t know, Dad says. So what’s the point? I grow impatient. Son, he says, there are lots of things about work that make no sense. That’s what they pay us for, do you see what I mean? More or less, I say.

We park Pedro outside a bar with colored lights. Dad reminds me to call Mom. I tell him I’ve just sent her a text. Call her anyway, he insists. Oof. What’s great is that afterward he asks the big question: Motel or truck? Truck! I cry, truck! But tomorrow, Dad says pointing a finger at me, we shower, right?

We climb down to take a leak. We brush our teeth using a bottle of water. We make up the bed at the back. We lock the doors. Cover the windows with some strips of plastic. We lie with our backs to the wheel. The bunk is hard. Dad puts his arm around me. His arm smells of sweat and of gasoline a bit too. I like it. When I close my eyes I start hearing the crickets. Don’t crickets ever go to sleep?

 

Copyright © 2012 by Andrés Neuman

Translation copyright © 2014 by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia

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