[10 October 2012]
The front jacket on Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century features Pablo Picasso’s painting Las Meninas, After Velazquez, No.1., a deeply apt commentary on the text within. Both the painting and the book are modernist takes by Spanish artists on European classicism. They are about the intersection between representation, image, and the making of art and how this in turn affects our manner of seeing the world around us. The book takes place in Wandernburg, a fictional German city that appears to physically move itself from place to place, shifting perspective as Picasso’s planes alter point of view.
The story opens with the arrival of the its hero, Hans, in Wandernbug. It’s one of the few portions that aims for pure narrative thrills and Neuman’s descriptions of Wandernburg feature some of his most evocative writing: “By the dim light of the coach lantern he could make out the shapes of the first buildings, the round-cut tiles like fish scales on some of the rooftops, the needle spires, the ornaments shaped like vertebrae.”
Hans does not appear to have any business in the town and he intends to leave right away. But he is charmed by the innkeepers where he stays, befriends an organ grinder who lives in a cave outside of town, and becomes romantically and intellectually involved with Sophie, the daughter of a prominent businessman who holds a regular salon. Hans identifies himself as a traveler and translator and his past is somewhat mysterious. At times Neuman hints that Hans, like Wandernburg, is a magical figure, not entirely existing within a real place and time. At other times Hans seems to be a young artist creating an air of mystery about himself and his past in order to heighten his allure. As a traveler, it is not Hans’ “natural” state to remain in Wandernburg, but some inexplicable force keeps him there.
At first, Traveler of the Century most immediately brings to mind Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The two books share a Germanic base, are heavy on philosophical conversation written with a similar formal lucidity, and feature a young man named Hans who is mired in a sort of romantic torpor and unable to leave a temporary home.
This influence, while there, starts to wear off as the book progresses. What ultimately keeps Hans in Wandernburg is not melancholic inertia, but what ties anyone to where they live: he falls in love, makes friends, and becomes part of a community. The tension between movement and stasis becomes a prominent theme and is discussed with the organ grinder: “(But isn’t that what love is, the old man said, being happy to stay?) I’m not sure, organ grinder, I’ve always thought of love as pure movement, as a sort of journey.”
The setting of the book, sometime after the Napoleonic Wars, also comes to the fore. Hans is much more tied into the politics and hard realities of his age than The Magic Mountain’s Hans Castorp. Most of the book is made up of long discussions that take place in the salon and with Hans’s friends and concern the primary political issues of the time period: unification of European states, the effects and worth of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s reforms, industrialism and worker’s rights, and arguments between conservative and liberal reformations with the church and monarchism on one side and democracy on the other. The romantic movement and its emphasis on the individual and free will also figures heavily, a storyline involving a love triangle recalls the central story of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Without drawing any direct lines for the reader, Neuman tries to paint these arguments as fundamental to ideas and issues that define modern Europe as well. Wandernburg’s shifting borders and discussions of German unification mirror those surrounding today’s European Union. “(But our fate, Hans argued, also depends on that of the other European countries, you cannot define any nation without redefining the continent.)”
Too often these discussions read flat and overlong. Typically an argument falls too neatly on the sides of liberals and conservatives, with each side one-upping the other with clunky sterility. In these portions I wished Neuman had been able to able to capture some of the crackle of the conversations between Settembrini and Naphta in The Magic Mountain.
The characters, most prominently Sophie, talk about the importance of connecting one’s ideas about the world with how one lives their life. As the story progresses freedom (from borders mental and physical) and love and art become increasingly intertwined. The story as a whole has some its most successful scenes when Neuman is able to tie together the philosophical and the physical when the salon flirtations between Sophie and Hans explodes into a love affair consummated as much in sex as in the translation and creation of an anthology of modern European poetry that they work on together. “The more they worked together, the more similarities they discovered between love and translation, understanding a person and translating a text, retelling a poem in a different language and putting into words what the other was feeling. Both exercises were as happy as they were incomplete – doubts always remained, words that needed changing, missed nuances. They were both aware of the impossibility of achieving transparency as lovers and translators.”
At other times the book strains for pathos. Subplots are picked up and abandoned. In Hans’s relationship with the organ grinder, Neuman struggles to depict him as something other than a wise simpleton. A typical homily goes, “…playing the barrel organ is like telling stories around the fire, like you the other night. The tune is already written on the barrel and it may seem like it’s all done for you, a lot of people think you just turn the handle and think of something else. But for me it’s the intention that counts…The less love you put into things the more they resemble one another. The same goes for stories, everyone knows them by heart, but when someone tells them with love, I don’t know, they seem new.”
Such thoughts can read as maudlin and in the end stymie Neuman’s writing, which deliberately adopts an older style while trying to capture how it can sound new and exciting in the context its era. But the good moments are hard won behind stale ideas and an uneven narrative. Wandernburg’s shifting location comes to seem like a covering up of something that isn’t there.