Donal McLaughlin and Andrés Neuman read on 19th August 2014
by Rebecca DeWald
I do sometimes wonder what goes into deciding which two authors to pair up for a reading. This is especially the case when one of them, Donal McLaughlin, is a local leading light, Scottish not born but bred, and the other, Andrés Neuman, a self-professed “border citizen”, living between remote Spain and even more remote Argentina, both tackling very different topics in the book/s presented. Host and subeditor of the Guardian’s book section  Richard Lea seemingly easily finds the common thread in short fiction, both in McLaughlin’s short story collection Beheading the Virgin Mary, and Other Stories (University Press Group) and the short novel Talking to Ourselves Neuman presents (luckily his first short story collection in English, The Things We Don’t Do, came out only a week ago as well, both from Pushkin Press). Throughout the discussion, the two unlikely writers turn out to have much more in common besides agreeing on many terms, making Neuman feel he has to apologize for being “so boring and agreeing with Donal again.”
Recurrent themes are identity and belonging, voice and rhythm, and translation. McLaughlin was born in Derry and moved to Glasgow at the age of nine, though elegantly circles the question whether he could be considered an Irish writer. His vernacular is a rhythmic Glaswegian with an ear for the language of the people, which he presents wonderfully in his reading of the short story ‘The Age of Reason’ about the recurrent protagonist of his collection, Liam, and his upbringing as an Irish boy in Scotland. The factual similarities between Liam and McLaughlin are evident and provoke Lea’s assertion that “it is tempting to read something of your own upbringing into Liam.” “I created Liam,” McLaughlin explains, “not to talk about me. I realised I had a special perspective on the troubles because I only ever saw them when I went over to Ireland in the summer holidays.” Besides the personal link yet with a sense of remoteness from the troubles in his native Northern Ireland, McLaughlin’s particular situation as an Irish-Scot brought with it two sets of voices: an Irish and a Scottish one. That is why, he says, he can hear the characters’ voices when writing them and “that’s what matters to me most.”
And this is one of the things which invite comparison between the two writers: voice, character, and the way in which the actors talk to and about each other, as well as to themselves. Neuman agrees: “I always hear my characters as well. I very often read aloud to myself. When I really enjoy a book I do that to read slower. I remember the tone of a book much more than the plot.” And McLaughlin goes so far as to state that, “Personally I’m not interested in plot at all. I don’t do plot.” Voice and speaking take on a predominant position in Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves. The short novel tells the story of Mario, a husband and father suffering from a fatal disease and wanting to create lasting memories for his 10-year old son Lito by taking him on a road-trip. Elena, his wife and mother to Lito, stays at home, battling her own feelings about the approaching death of her husband by submitting to extreme sado-masochistic sex games with her lover Ezequiel, Mario’s doctor. The short chapters of the novella give insights into each of the protagonists’ perspectives by alternating between them. Neuman explains the structure of the book:
We writers are scared. We think in symmetry which is a sign of fear. That’s why I liked the third voice of Elena, to break the symmetry. The boy only tells us about the time of the trip; for him, that’s all his life. The father tells a bit about before and after and then Elena knows the whole story, until after Mario dies. The boy is in the timeline of the father and the father is in the timeline of the mother. The boy thinks, the father speaks and the mother writes. I think that’s the three ways in which we talk to ourselves.
It is the different voices within the writers, the different languages they speak, the multiple cultures they inhabit, which form the strongest link between McLaughlin and Neuman. From this point of view, it is no surprise — yet a positive surprise within the bigger picture of literary criticism — that both writers speak so positively about translation. Following Lea’s question whether the English translation of Talking to Ourselves by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia — who have also collaboratively translated Neuman’s other two publications into English, the aforementioned short story collection and the epic novel Traveller of the Century — still reads like his text, Neuman explains that he was involved in the English translations of his work, particularly in the editing and revision process, so that he feels they are “slightly mine.” In his praise for Caistor and Garcia (“They are doing an amazing job!”) he is joined by McLaughlin (“They have done a wonderful job”), a prolific translator from German himself (he read at the EIBF 2013 accompanying Swiss author Pedro Lenz whom he translated into Glaswegian). This prompts Neuman to compliment translations of McLaughlin’s work into Spanish, the Glaswegian rendered in a Spaniard dialect which was rewarded with a literary prize in Argentina.
Further to his praise, Neuman is convinced that translations offer new possibilities for authors, as the author “has a new chance to make changes and rewrite bits” and admits to having had to change titles of short stories in English which gave him the opportunity to change the beginning of a short story altogether. Finally, he says “I don’t think the original is sacred and the translation is a poor version. It is a second original.” Music to every translator’s ear. 
The final question, then, relates the writing practice to the authors’ own experiences again: What happens to your own identity in this cultural shift between voices and languages? McLaughlin admits that, while he is perfectly fluent in German (to the extent that Neuman asserts his own German skills sound “pathetic” in comparison), he would never attempt to write in German, “no matter how good my German is.” This daring task is still something which he admires in writers like Iraqi-German writer Abbas Khider, who writes in his second language (translated by McLaughlin, see an excerpt here). Neuman, while positive about his dual nationality as an Argentine living in Spain, is still conflicted. Being at home in two places “brings you both enjoyment and conflict. You begin to hesitate how to say things in your mother tongue. When I moved from Argentina to Spain, I began stumbling in my mother tongue.” And he adds: “And I’ve never managed to feel at home in my own language again.”
An earlier question about how McLaughlin’s dialectical writing style can be understood abroad, met his determined answer that “people around the world can cope with it.” Neuman, the recent wunderkind of world literature, would rather make us question whether anything can be understood at all outwith oneself. He quotes the Ecuadorian poet Alfredo Gangotena’s words, himself writing in French: “J’apprends la grammaire de ma pensée solitaire.” (“I understand the grammar of my solitary/lonely heart.”). These two writers of our time engage in very different, yet not too dissimilar ways with their own cultural split and lives in translation and which make us as readers want to travel where they have been, even if it is just to experience a glimpse of the notable joy they have in doing what they do.
- You can listen to the event on the Guardian website as well.
- Neuman’s fellow Argentine Patricio Pron was similarly laudatory about his translators and the opportunities translation offers in general at the EIBF last year, which poses the question whether translation is maybe much more embedded in Argentine (or even South American) literature and therefore considered to be much more than a pastime for writers not good enough to be full-time writers.