As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._
Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia and published by FSG
This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.
Let me entice you by stating flat out that Andres Neuman’s Alfaguara Prize-winning Traveler of the Century (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) is a 600-page novel in which not much happens. In some ways, it stands, a hulking mass (Andres the Giant?), in the corner opposite Houellebecq’s Map and the Territory. (Wrestling allusion thrown in for Chad’s sake.)
There is a plot, yes—the young traveler of the title stumbles into the neither here-nor-there city of Wandernburg (think of a magic mountain nestled among invisible cities), falls in love with a betrothed woman (you will too), demonstrates the affinities between translation and love (it’s sexy), fends off the stuffy morality of small town life (no surprises here), all while a mysterious rapist is on the loose (actually, stated like this, a lot does seem to happen)—but this is above all a novel of ideas, of heady conversation, of intellect. Which, fortunately, does not make it any less riveting.
Most of the action, for lack of a better word, in Traveler of the Century takes place in a salon, among a set of conversationalists who range from the brash and revolutionary to the staid, the ill-informed, and the amusingly ill-equipped. Ideas are bandied about, poetry is recited, and sexual tension swells until it can no longer be contained. Neumann’s ability to pace a novel in which conversation is the primary mover is admirable and although some of his efforts early in the novel are a little clumsy, he picks up steam and refinement as he proceeds. This is an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold: Neumann’s work is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s one of those novels in which the seams sometimes show, reminiscent of Bolano’s Savage Detectives, in which the reader gets to watch a writer figure it out as he goes along. The rewards have to be more than sufficient for a book like this to work, and they are, they are.
Fittingly, some of most remarkable moments in Traveler of the Century concern translation. In one memorable scene, the professor, a staid conservative who rests on his laurels, argues against the possibility of translation. As the bore goes on and on, Hans, the traveler of the title, reflects that
everything he said was applicable to the field of emotions—in short, someone who disbelieved in the possibilities of translation was skeptical of love. This man . . . was linguistically born to solitude.
And, a few moments later, Hans is forced to concede a point as the professor argues
that it is far easier to think in a foreign language than to feel in it . . . and from this one can deduce that any feeling expressed in another language cannot be the same feeling, not even a variant of it. At best it can be inspired by another feeling. Call this an exchange, an influence or what you will. But, I beg you, do not call it translation.
This fruitful dialectic is a prime example of Neumann’s strategy for moving his novel along. It also brings to mind several questions about the nature of translation, which is of course relevant to anyone reading this blog.
I stated earlier that this is not a perfect book, but I nevertheless believe it deserves to win the BTBA because its merits far outweigh its imperfections: Traveler of the Century is, like the wandering city in which the traveler finds he cannot escape, a place to get lost in.
Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And one of my GoodReads friends, where I read a lot of his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. He is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan.
I’ve been hearing about Andres Neuman for some time now, and am very excited to check out this novel. We actually featured him back in 2010 as part of our “22 Days of Awesome” series . . .
Here’s a bit from Jeremy’s review of Traveler of the Century:
Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.
Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’ stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.
Click here to read the entire review.
Traveler of the Century is an exquisite, dazzling work of fiction. Its author, Andrés Neuman, is a young argentinian writer, born in 1977, whose relative youth is belied by a remarkably prodigious literary output. Neuman has written nearly twenty distinct works, including four novels, nine books of poetry (a tenth compiles them), four short story collections, a book of essays, and a book of aphorisms (in addition to his translations of german poet Wilhelm Müller). His writing has been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, having attracted a number of prestigious awards, and his international renown is clearly on the ascendancy as his works find their way into ever more translations.
With the publication of granta’s winter 2010 issue (“Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists”), many English-speaking readers had their first introduction to Andrés Neuman via his short story “After Helena.” The late Roberto Bolaño offered his own high praise for Neuman (well before Traveler of the Century had even been written), including a short piece about him (“Neuman, Touched by Grace”) in his nonfiction collection Between Parentheses (published in English translation in 2011). Bolaño, ever the discerning critic, wrote about neuman after reading his first novel (Bariloche):
Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When i come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.
With Traveler of the Century, Neuman’s first book to be translated into English, it is evident that the myriad hype surrounding this young writer is indeed well-deserved.
Written in Granada between the spring of 2003 and the fall of 2008, Traveler of the Century (El Viajero del Siglo) was published in Spanish in 2009 and was summarily awarded two of Spain’s most distinguished literary honors (the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize). The awards themselves place Neuman in the company of a veritable who’s who of Latin American letters, counting as their recipients Cela, Vargas Llosa, Donoso, Onetti, Marias, and Vila-Matas, amongst others. His fourth novel, Traveler of the Century has already been translated into ten languages.
The novel is set in the small, fictional German town of Wandernburg sometime in the early nineteenth century (presumably in the mid- or late-1820s). A town where the streets are constantly rearranging themselves, “it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location of Wandernburg on any map, because it has changed places all the time.” Wandernburg, from the german verb “wandern” (to hike, ramble, roam, or wander), is nestled between Dessau and Berlin in the northeastern part of the country. Despite the metaphysical qualities inherent in the town’s geographical layout, it would be a grave error to classify Traveler of the Century as containing any elements from the Latin American subgenre of magical realism.
Instead, Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.
Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’s stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.
Neuman’s novel is colored by a number of rich subplots that are woven effortlessly into an already well-textured narrative. A series of nefarious and sinister crimes work their way into the tale, for example, and are portrayed in stunning complement to other rising action. Minor characters, such as Hans’s new best friend (and weekly salon attendee), Álvaro, figure prominently into the story and are as well-conceived and believable as both Hans and Sophie. Nearly every aspect of Traveler of the Century seems carefully crafted and assiduously arranged. Neuman’s prose is both beautiful and engaging, lending the novel yet another characteristic that makes up its captivating essence.
Traveler of the Century, at heart, is both a novel of ideas and a love story. Neuman explores many exigent issues throughout the book (relevant to both post-napoleonic Europe and the modern world), including continental politics, national sovereignty, war, peace, economic development, immigration, poverty, nation building, empire, women’s rights, labor, and revolution, as well as more literary subjects such as poetic norms, style, philosophy, fiction, and the role of the translator. that neuman was able to so expertly include these elements into the novel without straying into the didactic, rendering them essential components to the story, demonstrates the mastery with which he composed this fantastic book.
Neuman’s work, in all its many aspects, represents a summation of the narrative form. Traveler of the Century is a complete novel that allows us an opportunity to reassess the present (and the future) by looking behind us. It is truly a timeless tale, one that demonstrates a past, once contemplated through the often clarifying lens of fiction, not all that dissimilar from the contemporary. Andrés Neuman seems to possess a formidable talent, and Traveler of the Century may well presage a lengthy and accomplished literary career the likes of which only come along a few times in a generation. Traveler of the Century, while penned by a young, spanish author born in Argentina, is, nonetheless, an European novel of considerable consequence. As more of his works undoubtedly make their way into translation, Andrés Neuman is surely a name that will come to be uttered in the same breath of his masterful forebears.
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