Andrés Neuman, How to Travel without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America
Translated by Jeffrey Lawrence
Publisher: Restless Books
2016, 252 pages, paperback, $16
I WAS WAITING in an airport terminal when I began reading Andrés Neuman’s How to Travel without Seeing, which chronicles the author’s whirlwind Latin American book tour after winning a major Spanish-language prize. “We want to get away, but the rhythm of the structure, its time frame and its protocols, forces us to wait,” he writes. It were as if Neuman was narrating my own thoughts. But there is also a deeper anxiety rooted in travel, this push-pull between return and departure. “When traveling to certain places, we move forward with our bodies and backwards in our memories,” Neuman writes. “In other words, we advance into the past.” But the book is not merely a collection of these insightful snippets, nor is it merely a travelogue, though there are plenty of both throughout. As Neuman writes, the book is a “cross between flash fiction, aphorism, and very short-form journalism.” And as such, the book, written in present tense and in short paragraphs, is as jolting and hurried as travel itself.
Neuman’s outward-focused experiment gives readers an inside glimpse of Latin America in 2009 (the author’s original travel timeline). His objective is not to detail his own life but rather to “write about what I saw, heard, understood, or misinterpreted as I made my way through the labyrinth we call Latin America.” The book is a treasure trove of wit, irony, and humor. Though its entries are written in the moment—and thus not filtered with retrospection—it is still a deep dive into the Latin American psyche.
Does such a thing even exist in an increasingly homogeneous, globalized world? Throughout his travels, Neuman highlights how globalization threatens to erase identity. For example, in La Paz, Bolivia, he comes across the Thelonious Jazz Bar. “And then La Paz leaves La Paz,” he writes, “and this city could be any city, and we are I don’t know where, and that not knowing could (fortunately) also be Latin America.” I felt the same displacement and confusion when my wife and I traveled to Mexico City. We found ourselves in a darkly lit, heavily wooden bar that served craft cocktails. It could’ve been any bar in Austin. In fact, the bar back, after inquiring where we were from, said with a smile that he and the staff had taken a trip recently to Austin and ate at Franklin Barbecue.
So, what then, is the point of traveling, if where we visit is not much different from where we left? In trying to answer that question, Neuman devises a creative way to draw out a country’s politics and national character through various institutions and products we are familiar with: cabs, airports, hotels, and malls. In Costa Rica, he toasts his journey’s end with “Imperial beer in a country without an Army.” In the Dominican Republic, Neuman learns that his Presidente beer is named after Rafael Trujillo, the assassinated strongman who once terrorized the country. “Now I understand its singularly bitter taste,” Neuman writes with precision. He even susses out a country’s attitude through the reading of its customs process. While one is so poorly photocopied that he can’t even read it, Chile’s customs form “seems designed to confirm the image of Chile abroad: professionalism, progress, legality, order.” This, Neuman criticizes, is a way of “whitewashing” the country’s violent history under a repressive Pinochet regime.
And of course, a country’s literary culture is not immune from globalization. While perusing the shelves in Panama, Neuman finds a small section dedicated to largely unknown Panamanian writers but a majority of shelves are filled with world-renown, best-selling authors. In Mexico City, an opposite problem occurs. Neuman finds shelves filled with books about drug cartels and corruption. “I’m not sure whether this bibliography is meant to criticize one type of business or to create another,” he writes.
Though Neuman doesn’t offer much insight into himself, leaving readers a craving for a personal narrative to follow, he does re-ignite a yearning to explore—even if we do it from our homes. In fact, he theorizes about the future of travel and travel books in this globalized age:
Perhaps the greatest travel book, the most unpredictable of all, would be written by someone who doesn’t go anywhere and simply imagines their possible movements. Facing a window that seems like a platform, the author would lift their head and feel the rush of the horizon.
Perhaps. But as I sit in my office, listening to Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Café Tacvba (the prior from Argentina, the latter, Mexico), trying to summon memories of Buenos Aires and Mexico City, I feel more a spurt than a rush. For now, that will have to do.
—Ramiro G. Hinojosa
Andrés Neuman was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he spent his childhood. The son of Argentine émigré musicians, he lives in Granada, Spain. He has a degree in Spanish Philology from the University of Granada, where he taught Latin American literature. He was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and was included on the Bogotá-39 list. He is the author of numerous novels, short stories, poems, aphorisms, and travel books. His works have been translated into twenty-two languages.
Jeffrey Lawrence (translator) received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and is currently a professor of English at Rutgers University.