Traveler of the Century
When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.
For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.
Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)
Although nothing really seems to happen in this book (like a 90s indie movie, it’s mostly talk and ideas), there are a number of settings and set pieces that flesh out Neuman’s view of the major trends in thought and society at the time. For example, the bit about the strike at the factory and the way in which the management crushes it is quite illuminating and lays out one of the main conflicts of the time.
That said, the primary setting is the weekly salon, which takes place thanks to Sophie, and features all of our main characters: Hans, Sophie, her fiancé, the Levins, the conservative old professor . . . The salon discussion unfolds for pages and pages, exploring major concepts like nationalism, the possibility of translation, the role of women in society, and Romanticism, not to mention a dozen authors/thinkers/poets/dramatists whom most people reading this (I suspect), will be unfamiliar with (which is a shame).
Anyway, it’s during these salons that Sophie comes to life. As a rebellious, independent, smart, sexy woman, she’s a sort of book-boy ideal—the woman who can namecheck all the poets while pushing all of the boundaries imposed by conservative German society and rocking an elegant dress that accentuates her womanly charms. Seriously—as a character, Sophie is fully fleshed out, and so fucking cool.
What struck me about her though—especially after talking to Bromance Will about the rapist and the fap-worthy scenes—is that she’s constantly deconstructing (in spot-on fashion) the way in which male writers and thinkers impose their ideas of Woman on women via their prose. There are several points in which Sophie calls out a poet in a way that’s much more modern than what (probably?) really existed in Germany at that time.
Which brings me to the rapist. Almost. So, one of the major planks of this book is the illicit relationship between Hans and Sophie. It takes place on the sly, on the fringes, unacceptable by all standards (especially then).
One of the reasons Neuman’s world building works so well is that he sets up a lot of parallels and opposites. In terms of the salon, Hans’s opposite is Professor Mietter, who is much more conservative and stodgy (although in many ways, the two actually agree), and in terms of the banging, the businessman Alvaro’s relationship with Sophie’s servant, Elsa, serves as a sort of parallel to Sophie’s relationship with Hans. And in terms of the opposite, we have the rapist.
A bit about the rapist: One of the darker, more traditionally suspenseful storylines in the book revolves around a man who attacks women in dark alleyways and eludes the police for quite some time. In terms of page count, this is a minor bit of the book, although the rapist’s actions impact several of our key characters. The resolution of this plot line is somewhat anti-climactic though, and it never rises above the level of sub-plot, which is why I think Will was curious about it.
One obvious reason to include the rapist is that it appeals to the traditional reader for whom 500+ pages of ideas is a bit scary. But there’s also something more at work here . . .
First off, both Hans and the rapist get their sex on outside of what’s accepted in society. Obviously one of these is much more violent and awful than the other, but within nineteenth century Germany, Hans’s plowing of a soon-to-be-married woman—who will soon be married to the richest, most important person in town no less—is really fucking unacceptable. And his attempts to get her to break off her engagement, to abandon her father and run away with him to translate contain echoes of the male poets and their ideas about women.
Stepping back a level, this is a novel written by a man in which he basically constructs a vision of an ideal woman . . . which is exactly what Sophie criticizes in all of those male poets. So, is Sophie just a male wish-fulfillment fantasy? It’s almost as if Neuman is—consciously or not—aware of this and uneasy about it. And as a result, this book contains heaps of clashing viewpoints and a sort of unceasing desire to include all of them—including the darkest sorts (rape) that offset the more romantic ideal (Hans’s pure love for Sophie).
In short, this is a really incredible book that is overflowing with ideas, told in a cool style—I love the use of parentheses to convey interjections and responses—by one of the greatest young Spanish writers of our times. So don’t be intimidated—just read it.