New Document Tables for One is the true story of a year Montreal native Robert Johnson spent in Spain working on a novel about a slew of quirky circus performers. The fact that the novel has yet to be finished is not kept secret, nor is the fact that he was in the eleventh season (a kinder, gentler word for year) of his attempt. He doesn't get much further in his year in Spain in 1985-1986 but the eventual outcome is a completed (and yes, published) travel journal of an introspective journey through Spain.
As a thirty-something rootless writer, Roberto - as he calls himself - records his daily experiences as a man adrift in a land of foreign language and social custom. He is a procrastinating hypochondriac, dramatizing aches and pains, and suffering from waves of nausea and anxiety that don't exactly help in his novel project. Not even a bus trip (to a place he's already visited) gives him the sense of getting somewhere.
Many writers can attest to the feeling of always meaning to write but never quite getting around to it. Johnson is consumed with his unfinished novel, theoretically at least. A severe case of writer's block installs itself in his head, and further distraction comes from his attempts to balance his solitary garret existence by meeting women.
In his own words, Johnson is a "wandering eunuch." Seemingly with great ease he picks up women in just about any situation: on a bus, where motion sickness leaves him weak and miserable; in a stationery store while choosing a sheet of paper to send a letter - a task he somehow finds complicated and over-analytical; or while asking for directions in his frothy Spanish lisp while on the lookout for thieves and bandits who might try to rob him. But none of his budding romances bloom.
Though he proves himself an overachiever in his attention to detail, the details themselves are what make this book extremely funny: the moment where Johnson stuffs a sock in his mouth after slicing his tongue on the jagged foil lid of a cup of strawberry yoghurt in a hurried dash to the store for some toilet paper; a vivid, noisy account of a fellow train passenger's illness which elicits from Johnson "severe stomach churning and nasal burps with an asparagus aura."
Some optimism is restored to Johnson's failed romantic idea of travel:
"Surely drifting back and forth between cities I had already visited, in a culture I scarcely understood, in a language that wasn't my own, in the hope of completing a novel I hadn't been able to crack in ten years, and finding the love of my life to boot, was my own tilt at windmills. A strange pride came over me. Being passionate about things that didn't make much sense was part of a great tradition here. And on the road I couldn't help but feel it."
Add all this to a large dose of self-mockery, a constant stream of bodily functions failing to cooperate in the most inconvenient situations, a reference or two to Hemingway and Don Quixote, and a glimpse of Spanish society - just enough to get the gist - and you've got a very entertaining read.
Sarah Rosenfeld is a writer and associate editor for a travel and leisure magazine for Canadian physicians.