Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
If you know that Andrés Neuman was born in Argentina, that he lives in Spain, where he has been awarded that country’s most prestigious literary prizes, and that Roberto Bolaño said, “the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman,” then Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English is not what you expect. Rather than a harsh tale about brutal Latin American atrocities or the underbelly of the Spanish-speaking world, Traveler of the Century takes place in Germany sometime in the mid-1800s. And indeed, it reads like a sprawling, nineteenth century European novel, more akin to Tolstoy than Bolaño.
It begins when Hans, a strange traveler wearing a Jacobean beret and peasant frock coat, who arrives in Wandernburg. It is the midst of winter, the River Nulte is frozen, the trees are bare, and the spires and towers of the town are topped with snow. Hans has been to many places, but never a place like Wandernburg.
This is partly due to the geographical position of Wandernburg, which is impossible to pinpoint on a map, since it changes places all the time, shifting between Saxony and Prussia, being part of the last Germanic lands owned by the Catholic Church. Moreover, the streets of Wandernburg themselves seem to change places. On his first day of wandering around, Hans loses his way in the “narrow, steep streets,” and often realizes that he has just walked in a circle. He believes the streets shifted during his first night, as the tavern he ate at the day before was then on the opposite side of the street.
The first friend he meets there is an old organ grinder, to whom he explains himself as “a sort of traveler, who journeyed from place to place, stopping off at unfamiliar destinations to discover what they were like, then moving on when he grew bored, felt the urge to travel again or found something better to do elsewhere.” Yet Hans stays in Wandernburg for much longer than he planned, because, as he tells the organ grinder, the city “won’t let me leave.” He books a coach to Dessau, misses it, books another, but meets Herr Gottlieb, a member of the town’s elite, whose daughter Sophie holds a salon every Friday. Gottlieb invites Hans to join the salon, and Hans finds himself making plans to leave every day, but watches the weeks go by, as he doesn’t want to miss the salon discussions, not to mention its host. Sophie is beautiful, educated, well trained in propriety, and quickly becomes the object of Han’s thoughts and desires. And she also happens to be engaged to the wealthiest bachelor in town.
The bulk of Traveler of the Century jumps around from one salon discussion to another, without a narrative note of interval. The salon participants conversations are also written in a scattered array of bursts of dialogue and reply, without quotations marks, in the same paragraph. Their discussions cover all the mid-19th century topics, comparing cultures of Germany, Spain, and France; the regression of the Old Order after the defeat of Napoleon and the progressive ideas of the Revolution; the repercussions of the Reformation, the Restoration, and the transformation to modernity; Hegel, Schlegel, and Kant looming in everyone’s comments. The Western world is on the edge of modernity, about to get rocked by Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, but we’re not there just yet.
Among very well mannered society wearing formal German dress, the beret-topped Hans is soon labeled as being “incapable of seeing beyond the most naïve materialism” and that he “reduces human knowledge to the empirical” as he hasn’t “gone beyond Hume.” And who has? Neuman knows that it’s impossible, and that we’re still operating in the paradigm that Hume developed. In fact, Neuman knows a lot, and he puts his knowledge into his novel, something which has become rare these days when authors are afraid of sounding pretentious.
As Hans stays through spring and summer, he gets a job translating poetry into German. After becoming “friends,” Sophie frequently joins him at the inn to “translate poetry,” and they develop into partners, having long discussions on the faithfulness of translating poetry, after or before having long bouts of wild sex. Rumors spread, and Wandernburgers begin to look at Hans with disdain. With her bold sexuality and independent thinking, Sophie pushes the boundaries of what is appropriate for females at the time, serving as a proto-feminist. Drifting daily from his cave where he sleeps to the market square where plays, the organ grinder serves as a sort of guru or holy man, dispensing words of wisdom and living his philosophy, rather than merely discussing philosophy, as Hans and the other salon attendees. Sophie’s fiancé is becoming suspicious, and violent. On top of everything, a rapist hides in the shadowy, shifting streets, a masked man who makes the Wandernburgers more xenophobic with each of his victims. Things don’t look good for Hans.
With Traveler of the Century, Andrés Neuman is able to turn back society to a time when the art of conversation was the most highly regarded form of entertainment, when gas lighting was a fancy innovation, when the only way to communicate with someone out of shouting distance was by a written note, and when the music of an organ grinder was enough to touch “the edge of something” or create “a slight tear in the fabric” — to capture what has been lost by progress. If you’re a lover of literature, history, poetry, philosophy, and love, then you will love reading Traveler of the Century.
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Casitor and Lorenza Garcia
Farrar, Straus and Giroux