The World From a Hotel Roomby Brian P. Kelly
How to Travel without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America
Travel writing is as stylistically diverse and topically wide-ranging as the locations it explores. In that sense, Andrés Neuman’s How to Travel Without Seeing belongs to the genre. But if traditional travelogues are obsessed with the history of people and places, or a complex portrait of the writer’s experience of a new environment, Neuman’s book is an adamant rejection of that more familiar mold. Instead of history, he focuses on the present; instead of reacting to new locales, he relates more quotidian endeavors—surfing a hotel’s TV options, filling out customs forms; instead of offering readers the chance to feast on his journeys, he presents them as a collection of enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying nomadic amuse-bouches.
Written while on a book tour in 2009, Neuman’s latest work is a collection of “Dispatches From the New Latin America,” as the volume is subtitled. Each entry runs no longer than a couple-hundred words. As Neuman explains it, the tour provided him the opportunity “to experience […] the very essence of contemporary tourism.” Namely, “that traveling means, more than anything, not seeing. That life is a fragment rather than a unity. The only thing we have is a glimmer of attention.” From these fragments emerges a snapshot of a region in transition, of nations rooted in localisms that have taken on the mantle of the global economy and all the benefits and problems that entails.
Indeed, if there is one subject Neuman seems to pay singular attention to, it’s the effects of globalization on the places he visits. The most visible of these is the juxtaposition of disparate cultures, mashed together into a sometimes uncomfortable coexistence. On TV in Buenos Aires he sees “images of military leaders in Honduras alternate with lines of voters in Argentina and the Michael Jackson autopsy.” Part of this fascination certainly stems from a place of autobiographical interest: born in Buenos Aires and raised in Argentina and Spain, the progeny of parents with French, Jewish, Italian, and Spanish heritages, Neuman himself is a product of the cosmopolitan fluidity of the modern world. And this commingling is not without its humor, as in Guatemala City: “In front of my hotel there is a McDonald’s and an Ashkenazi synagogue. I try to visit the synagogue, but they don’t let me in. To enter you have to pay a fee. I try my luck at the McDonald’s.” (The Golden Arches are a recurring analogue for the ubiquity of global capital. In El Salvador: “My hotel was built over archaeological ruins. An ancient indigenous Pipil settlement. Today the site is called Holiday Inn. It faces a McDonald’s.”
Globalization of course brings with it more than pop stars and Big Macs. Neuman experiences first-hand the economic advantages that come with the international economy—he’s put up in nice hotels, treated to dinners. But he’s also well aware that these advances are not enjoyed equally by all. In a bookstore in Lima, he finds the newly released 2666. “I see the price. 207 soles. 69 dollars. 49 euros. The tragedy of importation. At that price, not a single young Bolaño fan could ever buy the novel. They will see it as a distant star.” This economic divide isn’t limited to consumer goods. In San Salvador, a monument to that city’s namesake splits the region in two: “To the patron saint’s right, toward the west, the residential, tourist, and executive zone. To the saint’s left, to the east, reality.”
This investigation is just a small part of the sweeping range of observations Neuman makes on his pan-American trip. Colonialism (a debate about Columbus, much discussion about the Panama Canal), technology (Skype sex with his partner), soccer (a favorite team used in an election campaign), nations’ troubled pasts (drugs, suppression of political opponents), and more make appearances.
And literature. The book could easily serve as a reading list for a graduate seminar in Latin American writing. Present are the big names, like Vargas Llosa, Aira, Díaz. But on almost every page there are authors to be discovered—too many to list here—illustrating Neuman’s belief that “recent works by local authors” are “the shortest line between curiosity and knowledge about a place.” Those familiar with Neuman’s work already appreciate his almost encyclopedic knowledge, his ability to sprinkle references throughout a text, both in name-dropping overtness and more subtle nods. In his fiction (The Alfaguara Prize-winning Traveler of the Century being the prime example), this comes off free of pretension. Here, however, he often seems to be flaunting, reminding his audience just how well read he is. Offering a brief quote or a quick summary of a work, he’s more interested in mentioning these writers than tying their work to the situations at hand. The result is that these passages come off as more aphoristic than illuminating.
This problem is reflective of the book’s largest issue: a pervasive shallowness that precludes any real discovery. Like so many travel-sized toiletries, the entries are lacking in lasting substance. One might be tempted to blame the form, but Lydia Davis and the current popularity enjoyed by micro- and flash-fiction (as well as most poetry) shows that length isn’t at all necessary for a work to carry emotional and intellectual heft. And indeed, there are many vignettes here that are profound, perfect morsels that make you put the book down to reflect on what you just read. In Santiago, Neuman is on the way to catch his flight to Paraguay: “‘Sorry to bother you,’ says the driver who takes me to the airport, ‘but this writing business, does it come from one’s parents? What do you think? I’m asking because my daughter writes. By herself. She tells stories. By herself. We bought her a computer. A 1998 model. Outdated, right? But she writes on it. Her mother and I can’t read.’”
But for each of these moments that stick in your head, there are dozens that are instantly forgettable—or worse. Occasionally, the notes sound like something out of a manual for a new-age movement: “To fly is to begin to land;” “Once you start on a journey you can never quite end it.”
All this adds up to a sense of frustration for the reader, a 200-page encounter of teasing denial. Yes, Neuman outlines what globalization looks like from his hotel room, but that’s where the observations end. We’re left wanting more—not necessarily prescriptions to alleviate economic inequality, or suggestions for preserving local cultures in the face of expanding multinational corporations. But something beyond the cursory note about the neighborhood fast food joint. And so it goes with each of the myriad subjects he tackles. There are plenty of interesting ideas here, kernels of an essay, a novel, or simply a more reflective dispatch. But his decision “that instead of taking brief notes to develop later at home, I would finish each note here and now and register discrete moments” gives the book a feeling of laziness, not immediacy. In Quito, he muses: “Literature is always in conflict, always on the border, and always at odds with its neighbors.” But the only conflict here is between this first-rate writer’s talent, and the second-rate work at hand.
ContributorBrian P. Kelly
Brian P. Kelly is the assistant Arts in Review editor of the Wall Street Journal. He is on Twitter @bpkelly89.