Traveler of the Century (El viajero del siglo) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Traveler of the Century
Andrés Neuman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 564 pg

El viajero del siglo
Andrés Neuman
Alfaguara, 2009, 531 pg

Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century (El viajero del siglo) is a broad novel of ideas that takes place in post a Napoleonic Europe that at first seems distant, but as he makes quite clear the same debates and the same arguments are still with us. It is an impressive bit of scholarship, bringing to life the philosophical arguments that have receded into the past. At the same time, Neuman also constructs a narrative that is equally interesting, giving the book a narrative impulse that is a good counterpoint to discussions about Schiller, Goethe and other 19th century German thinkers.

The novel follows Hans a world traveler who stops at the town of Wandernburg on the border of Saxony and Prussia. He intends to stay only a few days and move on, but he meets an organ grinder in the town square and they begin a friendship. The organ grinder is a kind of sage with whom he respects for his detached way of looking at the world, which lets him obverse the town, but stay distant from its intrigues. He also has seems to know that Hans should stay in the town and suggests after they first meet that he should stay an extra week. In that week, Hans who still plans to leave as he does every town he visits, meets the Gottlieb family and is taken with the daughter, Sophie. Once he has meet the family, striking up a friendship with the father and latter managing to get himself invited to the salon that Sophie hosts, he becomes, at least for a time, a resident of the town.

During the salon Hans, Sophie, an older professor named Mietter, a Spanish expat Alvaro, and several towns people discuss everything from the European union under Napoleon, the value of religion, which forms of government are best, and the merits of classicism versus romanticism.  While everyone chimes in, Hans as the worldly traveler brings the new liberal and romantic ideals to the group and often spars with Mietter who represents a conservative, Catholic, and classical view. The two are usually at odds and although Alvaro with his anti-clericalism can shock the group, Hans is the true rebel of the group expressing ideas that propose to overthrow the established order and many times are illegal in Saxony.

It is during these salons that the book returns over an over to the idea of identity. What is it that makes Europe, Europe? It seems to be odd to discussing these ideas again, and occasionally  during the salons I found myself thinking, yes, I already know this, why do I need to read this way. Yet these arguments are still going on and taking a gaze at Europe it is obvious that these arguments only seem settled because they are old. For example, at one point Alvaro notes it is better have less religious freedom because it leads to greater belief, unlike Spain which has such high disbelief thanks to the church. That friction still exists in Spain and has been an issue for a over a century. In other parts of the book, he looks at the desire for every ethnic group to have its own country, a topic that is still hotly debated in several countries. It is in these discussions that the book is more than just a rereading of German romantic thought, but rediscovery of the same problems that they tried to address and which have yet to be settled. While the novel was written between 2003 and 2008, the questions have taken on even more weight in light of the financial crisis that has exposed even more points of contention between the countries of Europe. (Alvaro’s funny take of the genius of Goya who knew to change the heads of the figures in the painting Allegory of the City of Madrid with the each change in politics, is particularly funny and telling.)

The narrative begins to move ahead at a quick pace when Hans and Sophie begin a passionate love affair. At first it is stolen glances and furtive meetings on country excursions, but soon the begin to meet in his rooms under the pretext of translating poems for publication. Between making love and delving into the subtlest meanings of words, they spend hours together in a world of romance and translation, as if each were part of the other. Neuman spends a fair amount of time talking about translation and his interest in the subject is quite deep. And within the greater theme of the book that Hans as a traveler is a translator of different places and ideas, it ties together all these discussions about politics with the simple need to be heard: without translation, in its specific sense of language, or the broader sense of different ideas into new forms that can be understood by new people, people stagnate. Of course, it is also a literary argument and Neuman shows great care in describing the process of translation, especially the argument between fidelity to the language versus fidelity to the meaning. As Sophie says, “Translation and manipulation are two different things wouldn’t you say?”

Eventually, Hans is found out to be the revolutionary he is–as men and women with new ideas are always called. As a result the love affair ends and Hans knowing that there is nothing left for him, has to leave town, finally, a year latter. At first the ending may see a little abrupt because Hans leaves town and nothing has really changed, except that Sophie is no longer engaged. But that is it. Yet that is really the perfect way for a traveler to come and go, both in the narrative and metaphorical sense. Hans is not meant to stay long, because like ideas, he must continue on, encountering new problems, new challenges to meet. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where Hans is, because he has exposed Sophie to something that will continue to grow and help question what identity really is. And in that exploration Neuman has created a  work that is both prescient and needed.

A Note on the Translation

I read the first two thirds in Spanish. I had bought the book back in 2010 and had not gotten around to reading it until now. I switched to the English translation when the publisher sent it to me, mostly likely at the behest of Andrés (but who ever sent it, thanks).  Although it was a little strange to hear the characters all of a sudden in English instead of Spanish when I made the switch, I thought the translation was quite effective. It was a very good representation of the original Spanish and eminently readable.