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Do They See Through the Murk?

Rodrigo Sanchez/dpa/Corbis
Andrés Neuman in front of a picture of himself at the Guadalajara Book Fair, 2009

Like Waiting for Sunrise, Andrés Neuman’s The Traveler of the Century begins with a journey in the German-speaking world. A young traveler, Hans, arrives from Berlin by horse-drawn carriage at the small town of Wandernburg. As the carriage approaches, the town, as its name might have warned, seems to move; when Hans passes through the gates, the town walls have an odd thickness that suggests “how hard it would be to leave.” Tired, he asks to be put down at a seedy inn where he is greeted by the ominously named Herr Zeit and given a room with scratching sounds under the floorboards and a spider weaving cobwebs above his head. When the coachman asks if he has a corpse in his heavy trunk, Hans replies, “Several.”

Where, when, and who are the questions the reader is invited to ask. The fictitious Wandernburg is “impossible to pinpoint…on any map because it has changed places all the time. It shifts so much between regions it has become all but invisible.” At one level the town’s “mobility” would appear to be a metaphor for the mutability of history and fortune; after the recent wars Wandernburg has ceased to be part of Saxony and become part of Prussia. But there are frequent hints that this is a magical place: Hans has the impression that the streets are not fixed, that shops yesterday on one corner are now on another, and that sometimes “Wandernburg rotated suddenly like a sunflower turning to follow the sun.” Planning to stay only one night, he soon finds it impossible to leave. The very indefinition of Wandernburg seems to hold him.

As place is never precisely established, neither is time. The Napoleonic era is over, the 1848 revolutions are yet to come, but it’s not clear where we are in between. Throughout the novel’s 564 pages the author provides an abundance of geographical and historical detail while systematically blurring the line between reality and fantasy. The young Hans, usually but not always the object of our attention, is given no surname, offers few details of his past beyond the fact that he studied philology, has visited more countries than would seem possible for his age, and works, when he does, as a translator. Whatever secrets he protects appear to be hidden in his heavy trunk, which he allows no one to open and from which, over the course of the novel, he pulls out a remarkable quantity of books.

The enigma is somewhat resolved if we consider the connections between Hans and Andrés, Neuman that is, the novel’s author. Argentinean by birth, the thirty-five-year-old Neuman has lived in Spain since he was fourteen, studied philology, spent time in Germany, and translated the poems of Wilhelm Müller, who died in 1827, around the date our book is set. As a name, Andrés has affinities with Hans, and the latter is certainly a “new man” in Wandernburg. Interviewed about the novel, his fourth, Neuman has spoken of seeking to write about the nineteenth century “with all the historical memory of what happened afterward, both in terms of history, politics and literature.” It is actually hard to imagine how one could write about the past without the knowledge of what happened afterward, but perhaps Neuman’s point is that in this novel there will be no pretense that the knowledge isn’t there. In fact, in many of the book’s conversations, political and literary, Hans seems uncannily aware of twenty-first-century debates, about political union in Europe, for example. Insofar, then, as we need to pin down his identity, Hans is an authorial alter ego who travels in the past and gets stuck there for a while, because the past is intriguingly indefinite, and because he falls in love.

Neuman is even more bookish than Boyd. There are hints of Kafka, Borges, Mann, and many other celebrated writers. There are learned and clever conversations that go on for many pages, elaborate set pieces, purple passages, essays on literature, history, aesthetics, and politics. The plot, however, is familiar and simple: Hans gets drawn into the salon of widower Herr Gottlieb where long evenings of conversation with local worthies and their wives are presided over by his daughter, the brilliant and beautiful Sophie. In love with Sophie and constantly exchanging glances with her in the room’s mirror, Hans argues heatedly with eminent, arch-conservative Professor Mietter, “the most cultured person in Wandernburg,” seeking to impress his hostess with his sparkling wit and liberal views. Sophie is impressed but alas already betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, an aristocratic hunk whose boundless wealth is to save Herr Gottlieb from imminent ruin. Other members of the salon are the Jew Herr Levin and his wife, who has recently converted to Catholicism, the frivolous but pleasant widow Frau Pietzine, and the Spanish businessman Álvaro, who is having an affair with Sophie’s maid Elsa, becomes Hans’s confidant, and is well placed to offer us an exhaustive account of recent Spanish history.

Nobody is in a hurry. They discuss Fichte and Goethe, Walter Scott and Schiller, the nation-state and European trade, and much, much else. Occasionally, attractive aphorisms rise above the surface of debates that readers may feel they have heard before. As for the relationships between characters, everything is seen as a matter of winning and losing, with the freethinking Hans seeking to get the better of the reactionary Professor Mietter in order to score another kind of victory with Sophie. Neuman aligns himself with Hans in his evident love of cleverness and his eagerness to win the reader’s admiration, so that the text is interspersed with virtuoso set pieces (usually of about three pages), such as the one where Sophie plays with her fan. Here is a fragment:

The discussions that followed were accompanied by a series of placid undulations from the fan, whose leisurely movement gave the pleasing impression that the conversation was taking the right direction. In a sudden fit of excitement, with a deft thrust Hans invited Sophie to abandon her position as spectator and join in the lively debate he was having with her father. Sophie was not prepared to yield this much terrain, yet the rim of her fan lowered an inch.
Emboldened by these minor victories, Hans got carried away and made some impertinent remark—the fan snapped shut, tracing an emphatic “no” in the air. Hans retreated, qualifying his remark with exemplary sophistry to such an extent it seemed he had meant the exact opposite, while not allowing his face to betray the slightest sign of distress. Sophie pressed the ribs of the fan against her lips, faintly mistrustful but plainly interested.

When Hans is not at the salon, or fighting off Lisa, Herr Zeit’s pretty daughter, who has a crush on him and like all young women in the novel is concerned to escape from the subordinate role in which women of the time found themselves, he is on the edge of town at the organ-grinder’s cave. Nameless, because he has no need of a name, the organ-grinder, who plays his barrel organ every day in Wandernburg’s main square, epitomizes the well-loved street artist, full of deep wisdom, careless of personal hygiene, living frugally, and sleeping in a cave, with no ambition for celebrity. Hans shows his superior sensibility by appreciating the organ-grinder’s merits, something others of his class overlook. A long set piece describes how a barrel organ is made and tuned, while Hans’s evenings at the cave allow him to meet members of the laboring classes and reflect on employment rights and social tension.

In contrast to the wisely charming organ grinder, the local priest, Father Pigherzog, keeps a disturbing diary detailing the state of his parishioners’ souls, thus giving us more information about the characters and revealing, not unexpectedly, the bigotry, avarice, and hypocrisy of the Church. But Pigherzog is not the only unpleasantness: halfway through the novel a masked rapist starts to haunt the alleys of Wandernburg, sneaking up on solitary women and holding a knife to their throats while he has his way with them; in short, the reader is invited to worry for Sophie.

If Sophie’s father is a Gottlieb, her mother was a Bodenlieb, and after a couple of hundred pages the earthy side of her gene pool finally manifests itself; interrupting the propriety of his pastiche of nineteenth-century prose, Neuman tell us: “Beneath Sophie’s ample skirts, among the folds of her petticoat, wrapped in white muslin stockings, her thighs clenched, tighter and tighter.” Soon enough, she and Hans are in bed together, “wrapped around each other like scrawled handwriting.”

Of wishful thinking there is no end. Around the time the affair with Sophie begins, Hans, now short of money, contacts Brockhaus, a publisher in another town, and in no time at all is being paid good money to translate poetry. This improbable development allows him to invite Sophie, who, it turns out, is a remarkable linguist, to collaborate on an anthology of European poetry, something that gives her an excuse to spend hours in his hotel room and Hans/Neuman the chance to tell us all he knows about translation and poetry.

An extended analogy is established between the translator’s interpretative skills and the lover’s sensibility to his or her beloved. It is the kind of parallel that confuses rather than clarifies and seems mainly aimed at aligning translation and literature in general with an idealized romantic transgression of repressive social mores. As the couple “alternated between books and bed,” we have paragraphs like this:

How can we speak about free trade, Hans pronounced as he lay next to Sophie, of a customs union and all that implies, without considering a free exchange of literature? We should be translating as many foreign books as possible, publishing them, reclaiming the literature of other countries and taking it to the classroom! That’s what I told Brockhaus. And what did he say? Sophie asked, nibbling his nipple. Hans shrugged and stroked her back: He told me, yes, all in good time, and not to get agitated. But in such exchanges, said Sophie, it’s important that the more powerful countries don’t impose their literature on everyone else, don’t you think? Absolutely, replied Hans, plunging his hand between Sophie’s buttocks, and besides, powerful countries have a lot to learn from smaller countries, which are usually more open and curious, that is to say, more knowledgeable.

Meantime, there is no need to sympathize with the cuckolded Rudi Wildenhaus because he is rich, privileged, and nowhere near as intelligent, literary, and witty as the lovers. He has no opinions, for example, on the internationalization of literature or the difficulties of translating poetry from four or five different languages.

At the evil heart of Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise is a rich, highly respectable man whose pedophilia leaves him open to blackmail. When, toward the end of The Traveler of the Century, with terrible predictability, the masked rapist tries and fails to rape Sophie, he is revealed as none other than the right-wing intellectual and upholder of conventional proprieties Professor Mietter. In both books, then, liberal positions prevail by depicting an emblematic opponent as prone, because of his repressive views, to criminal sexual perversity.

Neuman is a very gifted writer, he can be funny and charming, he has put in an enormous amount of work, but beneath its glittering surface this is a novel of stereotype and received ideas, an overly long romance that interminably aligns youth, beauty, wit, and spirituality with the profession Neuman has chosen and beliefs he never subjects to serious scrutiny. It is a crowd pleaser for a certain type of literary reader. And it has pleased some. In Spain it has won two prestigious awards, the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize. One trusts that this is more a reflection on the temptation for prize juries to confuse ambition with quality than on the real state of Spanish literature. Of the two books under review, I would prefer Boyd’s a thousand times.

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