Book Review - Talking to Ourselves

It is almost impossible to describe the multitude of emotions experienced on the death of a loved one. It is often hard to find the right words and you can feel emotionally isolated. Andrés Neuman’s 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 never maudlin, although he must surely have experienced his own terrible loss to write with such conviction and depth.

Mario is dying of cancer. Wanting to share a last few meaningful days with his 10-year-son Lito, he decides to take him on a road trip in his brother’s truck. His wife Elena remains at home, seeking solace in books. The story unfolds through their different narratives. Elena keeps a journal, Mario is recording a series of tapes to leave for his son, and Lito, unaware of his father’s true illness, recounts the road trip in glorious detail.

In an attempt to make sense of Mario’s impending death and her own turbulent emotions, Elena examines various 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 hospitalised 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.”

Neuman is a master craftsman so Lito’s humorous observations leaven the darker material and he gives a vivid sense of a 10-year-old’s voice and preoccupations.

Impeccably translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Talking To Ourselves is a wonderfully articulate novel about a vast and painful subject.

Originally published by The Independent on Sunday