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from the June 2012 issue

Andrés Neuman’s “Traveler of the Century”

Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

"Traveler of the Century" is a novel of collisions: of intellectual idealism and cruel reality; of originals and translations; of complacency and unrest

The Argentine-born Andrés Neuman is regarded as a literary wonder in Spain, his adopted home since his teenage years.  With Traveler of the Century, his fourth novel and first in English translation, readers will see that the attention is well-warranted.  It is an ambitious novel; set in nineteenth-century Germany, it is some six hundred pages long and sprawlingly allusive.  The drama, though, begins simply enough.  Hans, a humble scholar, finds accommodation in a small inn for the night on his way to find work in Dessau. The inn is in Wandernburg, a town lodged between the ancient states of Saxony and Prussia. Wandernburg proves to be an enchanting, if anachronistic, city comprised of established families and travelers caught along their way elsewhere. Beyond its lush stretches of farmland and handful of towering factories, Wandernburg has an almost hypnotic hold over its inhabitants. Hans soon discovers that time functions differently here. Wandernburgers are content to drift through their custom-bound lives of dances and church services, never looking past their homeland to the tumultuous world beyond. As the seasons pass, the city plays host to Hans’s deepening introspection; as he wades further into the town’s inner workings, the story chronicles his grappling with the idea of living without a future or past: “I may go there again but I could never go back. Going back is impossible.”

Over time, Hans is ensnared by the disquiet of his days spent ambling through Wandernburg, and it is no surprise that he constantly loses his way around the town’s many side streets. Armed with a translator’s disposition of skepticism and pensiveness, Hans seeks to decipher the city’s enigmatic air.  He writes, makes love, and drifts into an intoxicating sense of uncertainty. Yet, Hans remains unsettled by his inability to engage with the city’s many intricacies—including the contradictory mix of naiveté and suspicion that define the citizen’s common weltanschauung—and, despite the fact that he speaks their language, it appears that Hans and his fellow Wandernburgers are conversing in different tongues. Words blur and blinker his reality; he is enveloped in a Babel-like state that colors all things, even his dreams. His transformation resonates with the German wandern, of the city’s name—meaning to roam, or wander. More than once are we caught in the irresolute attraction to his surroundings as he contemplates the city’s form: “Was Wandernburg the same? Or besides shifting furtively did it change appearance? Did it have a definitive shape or was it a blank space, a kind of map that hadn’t been filled in?” But Wandernburg’s creeping architecture is only the beginning. In many ways, it’s hard to tell if Wandernburg itself isn’t the novel’s protagonist, crashing the characters into one another with its shifting streets.

The city is home to a host of outlandish characters. Sophie Gottlieb, the spirited woman Hans quickly falls in love with, although openly engaged to the town’s wealthiest bachelor, is quite at ease about her affair with Hans.  In one engrossing scene, the two abandon themselves to lovemaking, entering one another in a whirl of matted hair and stained sheets. Neuman does not turn away from details like these. When Hans is not trysting with Sophie, he falls into the company of a motley group—a Spanish businessman, Álvaro, who likes his debate as much as his drink; an ancient organ grinder who calls his cave and instrument home; and the members of Sophie’s salon, with whom Hans attempts to find intellectual solace though often to no avail. Neuman uses this strange ensemble to unveil how Wandernburg’s elusive grip traps not only the most common of citizens who want nothing more than to remain in the comfort of their birthplace, but also characters such as Sophie, who yearn for freedom but lack the wherewithal to leave. 

Not even the well-traveled Hans, who surely has other places to go, can extricate himself.  He delays his departure because he’s so consumed by trying to process Wandernburg’s abundant quiddities. The stakes of the book become clearer as Hans wrestles with that sensibility so unique to Wandernburg.  It is a city that constantly looks to the future but without the means to pursue it; although many of Hans’s acquaintances are constantly engaged in debate, what  Wandernburgers lack is the will to carry out their often—but not always—hidden desires. Workers are ill-treated but cannot fight back. Citizens kowtow to domineering religious authorities without a second thought. Even Hans’s beret—a vestige of his allegiance to the French Revolution—seems to perturb the Wandernburgers.

Meanwhile, Hans is attempting to prepare what he envisions as his masterpiece as a translator, an obsessive passion that allows him to remain in Wandernburg for so long, with Sophie. In contrast to Hans’s overt cosmopolitanism, Neuman fashions his eclectic cast to emphasize the growing tensions between the foreign sphere and a nationalistic, post-Napoleonic Germany. What remains in jeopardy is Wandernburg’s—and Hans’s—ability to overcome the growing cultural differences in their roundabout world, and, more than anything, Han’s relationship with Sophie becomes the focal point of these apprehensions.

Throughout the book’s five parts, Neuman presents a multitude of philosophical propositions, weaving historical questions of European aesthetics and politics into this novel of stolen kisses and passionate, furtive glances. The weekly salons held in Sophie Gottlieb’s residence are staging grounds, of a sort, for the book’s broader ambitions. Neuman, much like the ever-urbane Sophie, attempts to balance the debates gracefully, while others conjure the lofty arguments of Kant, Goethe, and Schleiermacher. Often the salons are an arena where Neuman himself wrestles with the idea of modernity; yet, mostly the debates probe the moral compass of the novel’s characters.  Much as Neuman’s work suggests the contrary, it is difficult to ascertain a man’s character simply from his heady poses.

Traveler of the Century is a novel of collisions: of intellectual idealism and cruel reality; of originals and translations; of complacency and unrest; and of the old world clashing with its modern successor. Between trips to the organ grinder’s cave and successive cups of coffee at the local café with Álvaro, we see Hans most at peace while immersed in the excerpts that he translates. Here, the act of translation becomes a metaphor for mutual discovery:

Thus, inadvertently, they [Sophie and Hans] developed a shared language, rewriting what they read, translating one another mutually. The more they worked together, the more similarities they discovered between love and translation, understanding a person and translating a text, retelling a poem in a different language and putting into words what the other was feeling. Both exercises were as happy as they were incomplete—doubts always remained, words that needed changing, missed nuances.

Whatever happens between Sophie and Hans, and however Hans reconciles his ambivalence about staying in Wandernburg, Neuman is intent on conveying a powerful, yet ambivalent, message: despite the impossibility of completely capturing any memory in words, the process and act is more meaningful than the traces left behind.

As the end of Hans’s first year in Wandernburg approaches, the novel begins to wind effortlessly through its carefully accumulated subplots. More impressive than his role as storyteller, perhaps, is Neuman’s use of imagery, exquisitely rendered from the Spanish by Lorenza Garcia and Nick Caistor. One is easily engrossed in the landscapes he presents:

Trampling across frozen mud and dried urine, they left Stag Street behind them. The flickering gas lamps lent the market square an intermittent presence—its luminosity fluctuated the way an instrument changes chords, the gradient of the deserted cobblestones rose and fell, the ornate fountain vanished for an instant then reappeared, the Tower of the Wind faded . . . One of these days it is bound to topple over.

Neuman’s language is much like the story he advances: dense yet timeless. Despite its title, Traveler of the Century isn’t so much about the need to travel, but rather about having the will to stay put.

Once a man who declared he felt nostalgia for nothing, Hans is forever changed: “There is something that unites me with the others, that unites all of us Wandernburgers—a feeling of fatality. When we close our eyes and say the word home we cannot help but think of here . . .” For Neuman, home itself is an elastic notion. Through the cold and wind that pass from the first page to the last, one thing is certain: for Hans—and Neuman—the world of words is the sturdiest refuge against the ravages of time and uncertainty.

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