After my Q and A with Argentinian/Spanish writer Andrés Neuman here is my piece on his novel Traveller of the Century. At a hefty 584 densely packed pages it is a book that cries out for the luxury of a few hours solid reading time. As I found that to be impossible, I have followed the characters in fits and starts. Thankfully, the engrossing themes and threads of the novel guided me through the drama. When I first got my hands on Neuman’s first novel in translation and read Roberto Bolaño’s effusive praise in the introduction, I felt somewhat ambivalent about tackling the book. I am not much given to hyperbole so I find it rather hard to swallow in others. Bolaño claims that ‘the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few other blood brothers of his’; (very gender specific; no blood sisters then?). Therefore, it was with some scepticism and a certain amount of trepidation that I began to read the novel. After I had finished reading, I felt that there had been so much going on in the novel that I would pull out a few themes and images that particularly struck me, to highlight here.
Traveller of the century is set in nineteenth century Germany, after the European upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars. When the story opens, Hans, a translator and compulsive traveller is in a coach creaking its way through a bleak winter landscape. Late at night, he plans to break his journey to Dessau in the town of Wandernburg and finds lodging in a rather shabby looking inn. As the story unfolds Hans, who never stays anywhere for very long, finds himself unable to leave. This is in part because of the strange qualities of the town and in part due to his increasing entanglement with the lives of the people he meets in Wandernburg.
A silken thread running through Traveller is the seeming ability of the geography of the town to shift around, almost as if the town itself does not want people to leave. In trying to find places that, he had found the previous day, ‘Hans had the strange feeling that the city’s layout somehow shifted while everyone was asleep’. He finds the market square to be the only location easy to pinpoint. This sense you get of the changing aspect of the town is unsettling and suggests unseen and unknown forces below the surface. Is it coincidence that Hans only gets to grips with the town’s geography when he is about to leave? Does he imagine this is happening; or is the town really playing with his perceptions?
Hans befriends a poor old organ grinder who usually plays in the town’s market square. As they become friendly, the organ grinder invites Hans to his home that turns out to be a cave just outside the town, where he lives with only his dog Franz for company. Hans starts to spend evenings at the cave talking to the organ grinder and two local workers Reichardt and Lamberg. There is much animated debate, discussion and cheap wine drinking carried on late into the night. One of the topics that the men discuss is the town itself; as a place to leave or to remain in. The organ grinder (who goes by no other name) is devoted to his town and sees beauty in the changing seasons of his home. The imagery of the men passionately talking and arguing into the early hours is very vivid and is a piquant contrast to Han’s elegant evenings with the town’s bourgeoisie.
Hans meets Sophie Gottlieb, a merchant’s daughter who is engaged to a local wealthy landowner, Rudi Wilderhaus. The philosophical discussions at the cave are mirrored by the Friday night Salons held at the Gottlieb house where the more socially elevated group debates the poetry, philosophy, history and literature of Germany and her neighbours. Hans is often in conflict with the hitherto leading light of the group, Professor Meitter though he finds a kindred spirit in Álvaro a Spanish merchant settled in Wandernburg. The Enlightenment is gradually gaining ground in this corner of Germany, even though the town seems otherwise rather set in its ways.
At the heart of Traveller of the Century is the illicit love affair between Sophie and Hans. Their relationship plays out against the background of often-intense discussions between the members of the two overlapping groups of debaters. Hans and later, Álvaro are equally at home in the two very different settings and Sophie is charmed by the organ grinder and his cave when Hans takes her to visit there. Apart from these encounters and the love affair between Álvaro and Sophie’s maid Elsa, the townsfolk stay in their allotted rigid social places. Enlightenment is also reaching Wandernburg’s women, as Sophie declares that ‘I for one don’t intend to spend my days with flour up to my elbows’. In tandem with discussing poetry and politics with Sophie, Hans is teaching the innkeepers daughter Lisa to read.
Translation is perhaps not surprisingly another recurring theme in Neuman’s book (see the Q&A for Neuman’s thoughts on translation of his own work). There is much discussion of language and nationality in the Friday salon and translation is also the means by which Hans earns his living. Translation becomes the means to enable Sophie and Hans’ affair to continue, as they begin to work together on Hans’ commissions. They in effect translate each other while they discuss the literature they are working on. The process of selecting the right words to use and then reading aloud their differing versions functions as a delicious foreplay, heightening their desire for one another.
There is a darker thread running through the drama, in the figure of the cloaked rapist who haunts the darker side streets of the city. I do not want to spoil the plot by mentioning the identity of the attacker. Suffice to say that the shadowy figure seems to be the antithesis of progress and enlightenment in Wandernburg. The police attempt to track the culprit by employing the appropriate rational means and careful reasoning. However, at one point Hans runs afoul of the local police and discovers that the law is not by any means as rational as it could be.
I hope I have succeeded in doing justice to a fascinating novel, that I am certain to read again. And was Bolaño right in his estimation of Traveller of the Century? Read it and judge for yourself!