Traveler Of The Century
- Andrés Neuman
- Farrar, Straus, Giroux
- B+ Community Grade
Literary smart talk and sexual desire are indivisible in Traveler Of The Century, the fourth novel from Argentina-born Spanish resident Andrés Neuman, and the first to be translated into English. In the late 1820s or early 1830s, translator Hans arrives in the small German town of Wandernburg with a weighty trunk, a beret, and no fixed departure date. A local councilor advises him early on to “abstain from offending the sensibilities of the authorities” with his headwear. “God willing he will leave and take his Voltaire with him before it is too late,” local priest Father Pig Herzog writes. But Hans’ rebellious views don’t get him into nearly as much trouble as his slow-burning flirtation with spunky proto-feminist Sophie Gottlieb, which turns into a full-blown affair.
Sophie is preparing to marry local gentry dullard Rudi Wilderhaus. One of her few outlets for intellectual sedition is a weekly Friday literary salon, where Hans regularly butts heads with Professor Mietter, a standard-bearer for reactionary but convincing arguments. “Romances use the past as a backdrop instead of as a starting point for reflection,” Hans announces at one of these sessions when denouncing historical novels. “Their plots rarely link passion and politics, or culture and feeling.” Neuman puts Hans’ precepts for engaging novels into practice: At 564 pages, Traveler is a heady, overtly ambitious work, its attitude best summed up by Hans’ dazed reaction to Sophie’s post-coital disquisition on Kant and her period: “Kant and menstruation, Hans reflected, why not?”
Traveler wears its ambitions lightly in spry prose, even as it none-too-subtly provides a forum for its characters to pose questions currently relevant to the European continent. “Our fate,” Hans declares, “also depends on that of the other European countries, you cannot define any nation without redefining the continent.” He’s arguing about how post-Napoleon Germany must think of itself, but the implications couldn’t be clearer. Equally blunt but effective is Neuman’s cast of characters, whose political and religious backgrounds are as (or more) significant as their dialogue. The exception is an unnamed organ-grinder who provides incisive folk wisdom about the nature of dreams and travel, a character who’s genuinely personable rather than just an obvious proletarian corrective to the salon’s social snobbery.
The sex+books=hotness equation is hardly a new one, but Neuman is a deft writer who earns his rare showy gestures, including an unbroken four-page finale written from the perspective of the wind. A much-cited quote from the late Roberto Bolaño deems Neuman one of the key forces to dominate “the literature of the twenty-first century”; this first English appearance bears out his endorsement.