Argentinean-born author Andrés Neuman has been racking up accolades in his adopted Spain since the tender age of 22, and “Traveler of the Century,” the first of his novels to be translated into English, reveals why the late Roberto Bolaño described the young writer as being “touched by grace.”
Set in the early 19th century, the story follows Hans, an itinerant philologist who stumbles into the German town of Wandernburg and finds it harder to leave than he expected. The streets of the little village have a peculiar, shifting quality that makes getting around difficult. It’s not the unusual layout that holds Hans back, however, but the people. The eponymous traveler falls in with two very different, but equally entertaining crowds. The first is a group of tramps led by a shabby organ grinder, who meet in a cave to drink and wax philosophical on life’s challenges. The other is a klatch of aristocrats and intellectuals who frequent a salon hosted by the beautiful Sophie Gottlieb. Her impetuous nature and impressive intellect quickly capture Hans’s interest, and the two engage in a protracted flirtation couched in lively discussions of art, poetry, music, and politics, so as not to arouse the suspicions of her fiancé, the well-meaning yet dull Rudi Wilderhaus.
In the organ grinder, Hans finds a mentor and, in a sly allusion to Franz Schubert’s “Die Winterreise,” a vision of what his future may hold should he continue to lead a rootless life that leaves him without a deeper connection to others. “I think that in order to know where we want to be,” says Hans, “we have to travel to different places, get to know things, people, learn new words.” The organ grinder gently prods him, “[I]s that traveling or running away?” It’s Sophie, however, who is able to open Hans’s eyes to the potential benefits of staying in one place. In her, he finds a smart, capable woman whose insightful repartee and proto-feminist worldview suggest the potential for a relationship built on mutual admiration and equality. He extends his stay in Wandernburg in the hopes of impressing her with his performances at the salon. Neuman draws out this restrained courtship so marvelously that when Sophie finally surprises Hans with a furtive kiss it’s utterly electrifying.
Their affair is one of the mind, as well as the body. Hans enlists her to help him translate poetry for a German publisher, both as a cover for their meetings and because he knows she will relish the opportunity to make use of the strong mind that she must otherwise mute in her role as a socialite. Neuman uses these encounters to dissect a wide variety of topics, everything from the ethics of censorship to, amusingly enough, the question of whether a translated work can ever really convey the sentiment of the original. Sophie and Hans complement one another, yet are in danger of being pulled apart; her by her obligation to her father and Rudi, he by the urge to keep moving.
All the while, Wandernburg moves around them. Neuman populates it with a well-developed cast of secondary characters that make the town feel truly alive, but never obscures the book’s main theme. “Traveler of the Century” takes on big ideas, and does so with an acuity that raises it to the level of great literature. It reminds us that the most satisfying journeys are the ones in which we allow ourselves to forget the destination. “[D]o you know what you have to do in order not to get lost in Wandernburg?” asks the organ grinder. “Always take the longest route.”Michael Patrick Brady is a writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.