Pushkin Press, £12, 584pp. £10.80 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Traveller of the Century, By Andrés Neuman, trans. Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia
Friday 20 April 2012
One cold winter's night, Hans, a traveller and translator, arrives by coach in the fictional German city of Wandernburg, intending to break his journey en route to somewhere that actually exists on the map. With him he carries a mighty trunk, packed with books. "What have you got in there, a dead body?"asks the coachman. "Not one dead body," answers Hans, "several" – an answer that this novel proceeds to unpack.
Our hero takes lodgings in an inn, and the next day, walking around the town, befriends a mendicant organ grinder, who takes him to his cave in the idyllic countryside outside the city. Hans sups with the organ grinder and his dog, enjoying the sort of bucolic reverie familiar to poets of the early Romantic period. Returning to the town, he stays a second night and begins, almost by accident, to be drawn into its comfortable and bourgeois circle of socialites and intellectuals.
He falls in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Alas, Sophie is betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, a local aristocrat and scion of the ancien régime. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert's song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on. Andrés Neuman, the Argentinian author, has translated Wilhelm Müller, author of the Winterreise poems, into Spanish.
But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel. Its author has described it as a "futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound". It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the 1820s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant (although largely allegorical) analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century.
Over the course of the book, we partake in magisterial synopses of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandernburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, in which the geography will not stay still. Even the architecture is given to shifting behaviour, the church steeple "slanting perceptibly... as though it were about to topple forward."
Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature: a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic; and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many.
Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation. We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, as a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents. On the evidence of Traveller of the Century, we might well be convinced by Roberto Bolaño's much-vaunted prediction that the literature of the 21st century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers. Whatever one's opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often.
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