Traveler of the Century by Andres Neuman, trans. by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia

Traveler of the Century: A Novel BY Andrés Neuman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 576 pages. $30.
The cover of Traveler of the Century: A Novel

It begins on a moonlit night. A carriage traverses the cold German countryside. The lights of a nearby (or is it far-off?) city shimmer and shift. A turn is taken and suddenly a traveler finds himself before the city’s walls, and then within them. Uncertain figures move through the mist. The carriage comes to a stop. Our hero alights at an inn. Welcome to the nineteenth century. Enjoy your stay.

Andrés Neman’s Traveler of the Century is a novel in five parts, and at least as many genres. There are elements of a historical novel, an epistolary novel, and a novel of ideas. Its subject is translation, or traveling. Or love. Or the 19th century. Or Germany. Or Spain. Or the 20th century. Or all of the above. It is the story of a Hans and a Sophie, a criminal and a cleric, a preternatural organ grinder and his preternatural dog. It is a story of lovers separated by class and characters chained by convention, a story of passion and prohibition, sex and sadness, summer and winter, of what one should do and what one ends up doing. In other words, it is the story of a perfectly normal wandering city on the Saxo-Prussian border in the first part of the nineteenth century.

Wandernburg, where the novel is set, is not a real place, and does not behave like one. True to its name, the city wanders, and forces its visitor to do the same. The shortest distance between any two points is to take the longest route, and before this is learned, Hans Hans, the century’s mysterious traveler, loses his way down many a cobbled lane and winding street. This does not generally happen in German cities, and was not generally thought to happen in the nineteenth century. One word for such things is magic. The term magical realism was coined in German (magischer Realismus, by the art historian Franz Roh in 1925) and is most often applied to Latin American authors (of which Neuman is one). Whether Traveler of the Century should be described as a work of magical realism is of no real importance. There is a little bit of magic and a lot of realism in the book. And still more history.

Traveler of the Century begins in darkness. A curious traveler named Hans Hans arrives in a wandering city where he is greeted by a Herr Zeit (“Mister Time” in German). There is a Kafkaesque simplicity and a Kafkaesque strangeness to this beginning, but it is soon succeeded by a very different manner and mode. As happens with traveling, interest in the city gradually gives way to its inhabitants. The peculiarities of the place recede and the story shifts to a more familiar setting for the century—a literary salon, where the dictates of passion and reason are debated over canapés and Indian tea.

In the salon, we learn that Hans is a translator, and recall the famous account of Goethe's vision for translation. One day in 1827, Goethe looked down at his desk (a day’s drive from the imaginary Wandernburg) and saw laying there the French translation of a Chinese novel and a German translation of Serbian poetry. He began to dream of what he called Weltliteratur—“world literature.” This is to say that he dreamt of the day when the artificial distinctions made in the name of national character would disappear, laying bare a common cultural heritage—and liberating a common human one.

This is a new idea in the world of Neuman’s novel, and it is the guiding one. Hans does not write, he translates. And for him translation is part of reading. Translation presents all sorts of practical and theoretical problems—ones that are detailed at (more than sufficient) length in the salon’s setting. The problem with translation is simple enough—we can never get things right, we can narrow but never close the gap between original and translation. But as Hans stresses, this is to misunderstand not only translation, but reading. Hans tells his fellow salon-goers that “each German reader of Goethe understands, misunderstands, interprets and over-interprets each word,” which is also to say there can never be “transparency between a book and its reader.” But this is no case for despondency—on the contrary. It is the essence of translation, and of reading, such that Hans (and his author) will argue that “no good translation can ever distort the translated work—it simply exaggerates the mechanisms of reading itself.”

Traveler of the Century has none of the impish glee or the erudite mischief of trips through the period like Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia; none of the repartee, the inside historical jokes or coruscating wit. Its manner of approaching history is at once naïve and sentimental. There is something a bit perfunctory about many of the discussions, as though every major topic of the time—from trade unions to transcendental apperception, from Fichte to feminism, Hegel and Hölderlin to Heine, from Metternich to distant prospects glimmering on the horizon such as European unity, the Industrial revolution, and communism—needed to be debated in turn. Over orangeade.

Traveler of the Century moves along at a brisk clip, but what moves it is love, not intellectual history. While there is something static about the salon, there is something dynamic about the development of the book’s narration, its style. It is rare that we can see something like a learning curve within a single book, but this is the case for Traveler of the Century. Neuman grows increasingly deft in his use of counterpoint techniques and synchronous scenes, which serve at once to widen the book’s perspective and to sharpen its focus. As for first and last things, there is a mystery in the middle of the novel which is—or is not—revealed at the end. In another famous traveling love story set in the same century, Great Expectations, Dickens ended with a shadow of a parting. Neuman’s also has an imperiled love at its center, and the shadow of a parting which is—or is not—dispelled. To reach these revelations the reader must traverse long stretches—but they are ones which, like all true traveling, are their own reward.

Leland de la Durantaye is the author of Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov (Cornell University Press, 2007), Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction (Stanford University Press, 2009) and is the translator of Jacques Jouet's Upstaged (PEN finalist for best translated book of 2011).