Pushkin Press 2013, 592 p. Translated from the Spanish El viajero del siglo by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García.
Traveller of the Century is the first novel by Argentinian born though long time Spanish resident Andrés Neuman to be translated into English.
Its protagonist, Hans, arrives by coach in the city of Wandernburg, somewhere on the borders of Prussia and Saxony, fully intending not to stay long. The city is strange, though. Apart from the constant changing between which of the two countries it belongs to (the setting is post-Napoleonic, there is a lot of moaning by the characters about the baleful influence of Metternich) its streets and buildings seem to realign themselves every night. So once again I find myself reading about a weird city (The City and the City, Pfitz) or altered borders (Europe in Autumn.) Neuman does not overplay this aspect of his novel however. The shifting topography is mere background, the city as it is. Hans finds himself lingering in Wandernburg (it is a difficult city to shake off) and becomes drawn into the lives of its characters; especially the literary salon held every Friday by Sophie Gottlieb and her father. The best friend he makes in the city is a lowly organ-grinder (who sadly does not have a monkey but rather a dog) living in a cave two miles outside the city. And there is a masked man who is attacking women at night.
Barring one two-line exchange on page 569 the dialogue isn’t marked out from the rest of the text in any way – neither by quotation marks nor by dashes – but rather is embedded within it (characters talking across or interrupting each other is rendered in parentheses, as are any actions of the speaker.) This idiosyncrasy does take some getting used to and, coupled with the lengthy discussions of philosophy, politics, economics, the merits or otherwise of Walter Scott’s novels, poetry etc in the scenes taking place in the salon, is one of the reasons it took me a while to settle to the book. Once in its stride however, the thrust of the story won me over. The love affair which we always know is inevitable between Hans and Sophie – despite her engagement to the wealthy Rudi von Wilderhaus – has a slow build up but gives Neuman ample scope to deal with two of the eternal literary concerns, love and sex. Sophie is a determined woman, opinionated in the salon, standing up to both father and fiancé in the matter of assisting Hans in his works of translation (a great excuse for the two to meet in Hans’s room at the inn,) and, a fact naturally kept concealed from father and fiancé but of course impossible to hide from Hans, sexually experienced to boot, an attribute which Hans rather appreciates.
There is a hint of mystery to Hans beyond his status as a traveller. He has books that look old but bear recent publication dates. It is only one of the many intriguing aspects of the book that his origins remain an enigma to the end.
In the salon we hear of Adam Smith that his “theories are capable of enriching a state and impoverishing its workers,” a fact proved many times over in the past two centuries, also – in a comment emblematic of the author’s referential approach – “These Argentinians are very restless, they are everywhere at the moment. They have a penchant for Europe and seem to speak several languages. They talk incessantly about their own country but never stay there.” Of Hans and his friend Álvaro we are told, “They spoke in a manner two men rarely succeeded in doing – without interrupting or competing with one another.” The novel might have been designed to test the statement that, “There are two types of people. Those who always leave and those who always stay put,” while Hans says to Sophie, “I feel as if time has stopped, but at the same time I’m aware of how fast it is going. Is that what being in love is?”
Not that it’s all serious stuff. We encounter a pair of semi-comical police officers, Lieutenants Gluck and Gluck (father and son,) tasked with finding the attacker. And what are we to make of the names thrown in as if at random of those incidental characters, Rummenigge, Klinsman and Voeller? I doubt it is laziness on Neumann’s part, as if he has only a limited knowledge of German names and merely utilised those he had heard elsewhere. Is it a subtly sardonic allusion, a joke at the expense of any highbrow readers, who will eagerly latch on to the salon discussions but perhaps miss this reference to German former footballers – and strikers at that?
Whatever my misgivings to begin with, Traveller of the Century is a novel not frightened of demanding effort from its readers but worth that effort just the same, one of those works that will stay with me for a long time.
Pleasingly, the translation seemed to be into British English but there were still a few entrants to Pedant’s Corner:- “And, yes, be able” (to be able,) there’s no need be so formal, the only thing he kept up all evening were…. (was,) neither of us like to waste time (likes,) from her there to her navel (from there to her navel,) laid for lay, do you take me for fool (a fool,) medieval, running towards to them, knelt down next to straw pallet.
I looked up Braille and water closet in case of anachronism. The first just about fits; however the second term wasn’t used in English till 1870. But the book is set in Germany and written in Spanish, perhaps the description was in earlier use in those two languages.