Traveller of the Century, of all the books shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, is the most seductive. At nearly 600 pages it’s a long novel, but from the outset the reader is captivated by two imperatives: will Hans win his lady-love away from the richest man in town? And will Hans the inveterate traveller become entrapped in Wandernburg, just like everybody else?
There’s a Kafkaesque quality to the novel: the city itself has no fixed topography and its streets and buildings move. Every venture outdoors involves getting lost, and yet no one – the reader least of all – seems disoriented by it. Journeys merely take a little longer, and that seems to be all right because there’s a timeless quality to Hans’s sojourn even though the seasons move on.
What time is it? What! said Alvaro astonished. Do you mean to tell me you don’t wear a watch? The fact is, I don’t see any point in watches, said Hans, they never give me the time I want. (p. 113)
At the outset, Hans is not much impressed by his dingy lodgings and plans to leave the next day. But he doesn’t, and like others who arrived intending to stay only a day or two, he finds that a succession of days come and go until even his vague plans to depart drift away into a formless existence spent hanging out in the cave of a nameless organ grinder and indulging an interest in Sophie, daughter of Herr Gottlieb, a retired tea importer and textile merchant.
Before long part of the charm of Wandernburg becomes the lovely Sophie, who is – alas – engaged to a local aristocrat called Rudi von Wilderhouse. Rudi isn’t all that bright but he’s elegant and handsome, his home is a sort of Versailles on steroids, and he enjoys that casual exercise of social power that comes naturally to people of privilege. Sophie’s father, Herr Gottlieb, is of course keen for this marriage to take place, and it doesn’t enter his head that Sophie might throw it all away for a penniless translator of no fixed abode.
Hans, however, appeals to Sophie’s intellectual ambitions. Like Hans, she is an unbeliever, telling Father Pigherzog that she has no need of prayer, and she’s a proto-feminist who wants a seat in parliament. Like many a heroine in La Comedie Humaine, she holds a salon every Friday, at which the local intelligentsia debate politics, philosophy, literature and aesthetics. Sophie listens to Professor Mietter, Herr Levin and Herr Urquiho pontificate away but when asked what she thinks, she promptly cuts them down to size with pseudo female humility and then rubbishes their pet philosopher Schopenhauer because – like all the other great philosophers of the day – he thinks the same way about women, relegating them to house and garden.
Hans is adept in these discussions, and becomes a regular guest. Plagued by doubts about whether Sophie cares for him at all, Hans undertakes a sly but elegant courtship, beginning with a prolific correspondence, attending a local dance hall where Sophie tries to teach his two left feet to waltz, and grasping every opportunity to ensnare the hapless Rudi in an intellectual cul-de-sac. And Hans has a sort of cheer squad, led by the organ grinder who likewise holds a salon of sorts – in the freezing cave where he makes his home. Here the Spanish businessman Alvaro and a couple of cantankerous labourers debate industrial relations, government and revolution.
What makes this novel so interesting, however, is not this scaffold of a romance novel. It’s the way that Neuman effortlessly segues between the early 19th century and what might be our own time, where the characters travel in coaches and read by oil lamps yet discuss issues so contemporary they might well be at the Melbourne Festival of Ideas. When Sophie’s salon debates the idea of a Customs Union, it’s eerily reminiscent of the arguments we’ve all heard about the European Union; when the organ grinder’s salon discusses the invidious position of powerless factory workers, one can’t but think of the sweatshops of Asia. The meditations on the nature of travel reminded me of Michelle de Kretser’s recent Questions of Travel (see my review): the organ grinder never wants to travel, fearing that it will lead him astray and prevent him from seeing beauty in the everyday, but Alvaro says it is ‘impossible to be fully in one place or to leave it completely’ and Hans quotes an Arab proverb that he who follows a path becomes the path’. (p. 132) He also quotes Chretien de Troyes:
He who believes his birthplace to be his homeland suffers. He who believes all places could be his homeland suffers less. And he who knows that no place can be homeland is invincible. (p. 133)
(This also reminds me of Hiroko Tanaka, a character in Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, who adapts to different nationalities with ease after the destruction of Nagasaki, believing that attachment to a homeland is a fatal flaw. More of that later, when I have finished the audio book.)
When the not-accidentally-named Reichardt argues in the cave that he knows he’s a Saxon and a German, Hans reminds him that his ‘homeland’ has been at various times, Saxon, Prussian, half-French, and practically Austrian. Why doesn’t Reichardt feel Teutonic? he asks:
Borders shift around like flocks of sheep, countries shrink, break apart, grow bigger, empires are born and die. The only thing we can be sure of is our lives, and can live them anywhere. (p. 134)
Neuman also pokes fun at his own country, Argentina, through the character of Alvaro, claiming that Argentinians talk all the time about Argentina, but never actually stay there.
The author plays interesting games with these characters, investing them with opinions that might – or might not – be his own. Mietter is a conservative, who thinks there are too many books, and they are no longer special. Readers used to be able to expect books to reveal knowledge, but now ‘people prefer buying a book to understanding it’. (p. 189) Hans, himself a character in a book set in an historical period though not an historical novel, is critical of the genre: he says that they either idealise the past as a rural idyll or portray it as a kind of hell. Either way, such novels are fraudulent because implying that the past was hell distracts from present injustices, and superficial plots (such as those in Sir Walter Scott’s novels) are full of action but are meaningless if they don’t interpret the past or the origins of the present. They also debate whether or not it is ever possible to translate poetry, a topic still subject to endless argument today.
At another of the salons myth is deconstructed, with the Professor asserting the value of Graeco-Roman culture to explain reality, and Hans just as enthusiastically claiming that the ancient gods are remote to today’s readers. The general thrust of these salon discussions is conservatism and adherence to form versus experimentation, open-mindedness and breaking free of old constraints in a new ‘federalism of aesthetics’.
However, I suspect that this is one of those novels that will appeal to a limited readership. There are some extravagant claims made for this novel by various blurbers but Michael Orthofer (whose opinions I respect) at The Complete Review had this to say:
Maybe came at this with far too high expectations, but put it aside after a hundred disappointing pages; poorly paced, lazily quirky, and it just dragged and dragged with barely anything (even the salons) or characters (like the cave-dwelling organ grinder …) the least enticement to carry on; it read like an amateurish modern attempt at writing what was supposed to (but didn’t) read like a German novel of ca. 1800 (the sort of thing I’m a fan of).
It is true that the reader needs sustained tolerance for long disquisitions about esoteric topics, and for the idiosyncratic punctuation which obscures shifts from speaker to speaker and from talk to thought to action. I became used to it, and didn’t mind it, but I know that such experiments really annoy some readers (and that being the case, I can’t really see why publishers persist with it.)
Oh yes, I suppose I must comment about the s_x, since the blurb makes so much of it, but I can’t verify whether the novel lives up to the claim that it has the ‘hottest s_x in contemporary fiction’ because I skipped these scenes. As an ignorant adolescent, I found D.H. Lawrence endlessly fascinating, but as my father said (tactfully, much later) ‘One grows out of D.H. Lawrence.’ These days I find s_x scenes in novels boring, boring, boring because after all, by now we all know what happens, and the longer these scenes are, the more likely I am to skip them.
(And I hope that my feeble attempts to mask the offending word in this paragraph will keep offensive spam away from this blog! Unless you are a WordPress blogger yourself and you check your spambox from time to time, you can have no idea how disgusting some of it is. Thank heavens for Akismet, WordPress’s spamkiller which takes care of it all).
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Jury. To view other reviews of this and other nominations please click here or on the IFFP graphic.
The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is due to be announced on Monday, so I’ve finished the shortlist just in time!
Author: Andrés Neuman
Title: Traveller of the Century
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2012
Source: personal library
Fishpond: Traveller of the Century