Only passing through
Frustrating. That’s how my experience with Andres Neuman’s Best Translated Book Award and Independent Foreign Fiction Prize nominated novel Traveller of the Century began. I frequently found myself interrupting my set aside reading time to complain to friends about the pacing of the story. I cried that it was boring. I couldn’t believe that I had another 471 pages to go. Then everything changed.
There’s no one single moment I can point to. No light bulb turning on. No cries of eureka. At some point I realized that I was fighting with the book over my expectations of what it I thought it would be, rather than trying to enjoy it for what it was. Once I gave in and abandoned my preconceived notions I was hooked. I stopped my complaining about pacing. The novel became intellectually riveting. I couldn’t believe that it would be over so soon. And when it eventually was, I was left with the daunting task of describing what it’s all about to others.
It’s become rather commonplace to state that a novel defies classification in order to label it as something different, something fresh, and something worthy of reading that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the titles vying for the reader’s attention in today’s over saturated book market. With Traveller of the Century though, this statement might just be true.
Is it historical fiction? Yes, sort of, maybe, not really, no. On the one hand, the town of Wandernburg where the novel takes place has only ever existed as a product of Neuman’s imagination and the cast of characters he introduces are all fictional. On the other hand, the political and poetical debates these fabricated denizens partake in mirror the true climate of 1820s Europe. So much so that it’s hard not to draw parallels between the issues of the past and today’s world while reading. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Is it a work of magical realism? Yes, a little, not much, no. Wandernburg does possess this rather annoying habit of subtly shifting its landscape. A street that was in one location Monday could be in a different location Tuesday. Things that used to be on the left hand side can, and will, find themselves inexplicably placed on the right. There’s an organ grinder that interprets dreams. These qualities could be defined as magical realism, but they feel more like minor touches that enhance the quality of the overall story rather than being part of its primary focus.
Is it a mystery? Yeah, perhaps, kind of. What the heck is Herr Hans got stashed in his trunk and where exactly did he come from? Who’s attacking those defenseless women on the street and will the perpetrator eventually be brought to justice? These elements support the larger story and help to keep things moving along.
Is it a love story? Yes, kind of, perhaps, but not in the way you’d expect. On the surface the visiting Herr Hans does start a rather torrid love affair with the well to-do Sophie. At the same time another, much younger girl, feels the sting of his unrequited love. Dig deeper and what you’ll discover however is a love of language and a beautiful obsession with all facets of translation. Not just the writing, but how we as individuals actually see the world. How we interpret everything around us, from environment, to body language, to the written word. We find ourselves in a perpetual state of translation, always seeking to make sense of our current situation. It’s here, in this exploration of human behavior that Neuman’s novel truly shines.
It’s not so much what Neuman’s characters say as much as how they say it. Not so much what they do, but rather how they go about doing it. His protagonist Herr Hans may be a somewhat suspect translator of written languages, but he’s a master translator of the language of life. It’s these small moments of understanding and these beautiful fragments of momentary clarity that make Traveller of the Century so engaging.
You may find yourself visiting the fictional land of Wandernburg for any number of reasons. Come for the magical realism. Come for the mystery or the historical fiction. Find yourself riveted by the intense debates. But the reason you’ll get hooked, the reason you’ll stay for so long, is because you’ll become attached to the promise of the universal truths of human nature that this city’s population aspires to reveal.
Traveller of the Century
By Andres Neuman
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia