I first came across the name of Andrés Neuman a few months ago, when I got round to reading the number of Granta dedicated to young Spanish-language novelists. Ostensibly about grief, his story – “After Helena” – is a brightly written, rather snippy tale of academic rivalries, attentive to detail but not afraid of larger, more sweeping statements. I liked it, although other stories in the collection made a greater impression on me, and the story, attractive though it is, certainly did nothing to prepare me for this novel.
Impeccably published by Pushkin Press, Traveller of the Century comes with an introduction by Roberto Bolaño, who died some years before the novel was published. Necessarily, he talks not about this novel, which he will not have seen, but about Neuman, for whom he has the highest praise – “The literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers” – and about an earlier novel, Bariloche, still, unfortunately, untranslated. Referring to this book, he comments:
Nothing in his work feels fake – all is real, all is illusion, the dream in which the Buenos Aires garbage man moves like a sleepwalker, the dream of great literature rendered by the author in precise words and scenes.
Much of this could apply just as well to Traveller of the Century. I should say immediately that I thought it was a wonderful book, surprising, complex and utterly engaging. It’s a large book, in length and vision, but unlike the last book of this size that bowled me over – Omega Minor by Paul Verhaeghen – it seemed to me both wildly ambitious and perfectly achieved.
The novel recounts the adventures of a young translator, Hans, who arrives in the city of Wandernberg on his way to Dessau, with a trunk. “What have you got in there, a dead body, complained the coachman. [...] Not one dead body, Hans said with a smile, several.” Almost immediately he makes friends with a mendicant organ grinder; later, he finds himself becoming involved with the literary salon run by a merchant’s daughter, Sophie Gottlieb, with whom he slowly falls in love. One thing leads to another, and his attempts to leave the town are constantly postponed or thwarted. “I don’t know what it is about this city, [...] it’s as if it won’t let me leave.” Soon after that, though, as the city takes hold and the will to leave it falters, he comments: “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 we can live them anywhere.” This cavalier dismissal of history and historical process, in a novel that both is and isn’t of the period in which it’s set, which plays with the conventions of the period as it does with the conventions of the realist novel, begs other, larger questions about what it means to live a life.
From the moment of his arrival in the inn, anxieties about the nature of reality set in, his own and that of the town. The innkeeper’s son, Thomas, is the first to cast doubt, appropriately enough (and I’ll be talking about names later) when he ask Hans who he is. “I’m Hans, said Hans, to which Thomas replied: Then I don’t know who you are.” The town itself has a curious, shape-shifting quality, as though on the move. What we mean by movement, and stasis, is one of the main concerns of the novel. At one point, sitting outside the cave where his friend the organ grinder lives, the two of them see some windmills. They’ve been talking about the virtues of music, and travel. For Hans, “people who travel are musicians or poets because they are looking for sounds.” The organ grinder disagrees. “I understand [...] but I don’t see the need to travel in order to find sounds, can’t you also be very still, attentive [...] and wait for sounds to arrive?” Hans replies: “My dear organ grinder, we’re back to the same idea – should we leave or stay, be still or keep moving? Well, the organ grinder grinned, at least you agree we haven’t budged from that point.” The passage continues:
Wait, wait, I don’t think so, said the organ grinder, I don’t think so (you don’t think what? asked Hans), sorry, I don’t think it’s true (what’s not true? Hans persisted), about being stuck at one point. I said the idea is always the same and that’s true. But we also like to reflect on it, turn it over in our minds, like those windmills. So maybe we aren’t so stuck after all. I was looking at the windmills, and suddenly I thought, are they moving or not? And I didn’t know.
It’s no accident – nothing in this novel is accidental – that they were talking about music. If you listen you will always hear music, says the organ grinder. The music the organ grinder makes is pre-established, immutable, but that isn’t how he sees it.
When the barrel organ is playing and the lid is down, I like to pretend it isn’t the keys making the sounds, but the people the songs describe. I pretend they are the ones singing, laughing, weeping, dancing up and down between the strings. And that way I play better. Because I tell you Hans, when I close the lid there’s life in there. Almost a heart.
The final phrase gives its name to the second, and longest, section of the book, much of which is devoted to conversations about politics, poetry and philosophy with, among others, the redoubtable Professor Mietter, Hans’ intellectual sparring partner and, as things turn out, a man with a secret. This might sound dry, but it’s absolutely the contrary of dry. Neuman’s ability to inject life into the most academic of discussions is an absolute delight, and much of that delight comes from an almost Austenite attention to niceties and social underplay; or, in the case of Hans and Sophie, foreplay. The section, inevitably, concludes with Hans and Sophie recognising and consummating their mutual attraction.
The love story between Hans and Sophie is physical, and depicted with enormous skill and tenderness, but it’s also intellectual, and the field in which intellects meet and meld is translation. Translation is at the heart of the book: it occupies the minds of the salon-goers, it’s at the core of Hans’ relationship with his Spanish friend, Álvaro, it lurks beneath the idea of stasis and motion as texts remain themselves and become other, as travellers re-contextualise themselves and interrogate the notion of home, and what it might mean (people who travel are fleeing nostalgia). There is also the question of fidelity to be considered, not only to the original, but to one’s promises, as Sophie betrays the man she’s supposed to be marrying. Sophie is an extraordinarily vivid creation, a woman who, despite her modernity in terms of sexual and intellectual freedom, is nonetheless perfectly pitched in the post-Napoleonic context of the novel. And this might be the place to say that the translation of this novel also struck me as pitch-perfect. When we say that a translated novel is beautifully written, we sometimes forget that what we’re praising is not the original text, but the translation. In this case, Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia have done their author proud. The final section, in particular, is a tour de force.
One last thing. As I implied above, great play is made of names. Wandernburg needs no gloss. Hans, I imagine, has the same sort of feel in German as John might in English – a sort of Everyman – but there’s also the Lucky Hans of the Brothers Grimm, who starts with everything or the potential for everything, an apprentice out in the world, and ends with nothing, and is nonetheless content. The innkeeper’s name is Zeit (time), while Sophie (wisdom) discards her surname (Gottlieb – Love of God) for her mother’s maiden name, Bodenlieb. In Scandinavian the meaning of the name Boden is: He who delivers the news, and this would be wonderfully suggestive, although it’s more likely that Neuman is expecting us to pick up on the German meaning: ground. Even Álvaro has a hidden resonance, originally meaning “all guard”. The novel’s ludic nature is more than evident here, and it’s integral to the flavour of the book, allowing it to evade any shade of pastiche it might otherwise possess. But what remains in my mind is less the sense of play, both intellectual and formal, than a tenderness, a humaneness that strikes, as the last-but-one section has it, a sombre chord, it has high notes and low notes, you can hear them quite clearly, some rise, others fall, kof, they rise and fall, can’t you hear them? Can’t you hear them? Can’t you…