He soon finds that this is not your average one-night town: Wandernburg has a tricky relationship with geography, shifting ceaselessly between Prussia and Saxony, and its own cartography is no more reliable. This is a place in which the same streets never take the wanderer to the same places, making it difficult to leave. And it doesn't help that Hans and Sophie soon become clandestine lovers, meeting in Hans's room with the ostensible purpose of translating European poetry, while having some of the most graphic sex in contemporary fiction, and then feigning innocence in public in the neutral environment of the Gottlieb family's literary salon.
These pages are reminiscent of great European intellectual novels from The Magic Mountain to Those Barren Leaves , but Neuman is healthily able to fill them with irony or outright humour a set of characters in a tavern bear the names of Rummenigge, Voeller and Klinsmann: if you're a football fan, you'll know what I'm talking about.
Traveller of the Century doesn't merely respect the reader's intelligence: it sets out to worship it.
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An unusual talent is required to pull this off, and Neuman has it. Neuman, born in Argentina but raised in Andalusia, is a poet and aphorist as well as a fiction writer, and his virtuosity in the short distances does wonderful things to the long novel: the attention he pays to one of his main characters is the same he pays to the sound of an adjective while describing the wind, or a dog's ears, or light. In the end, and despite or because of its European obsessions, Traveller of the Century belongs in the quintessentially Latin American genre of the "total novel": the all-encompassing narrative bent on exploring every theme, every social milieu, every emotional possibility.
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I stress this because it would be both easy and wrong to look at Neuman's book in the context of "globalised fiction" — novels desperate for acceptance by everyone that end up talking about no one. No: Neuman's novel is solidly inscribed in the Argentinian tradition, advocated by Borges in a famous essay , of not being recognisably Argentinian.
It is also a book whose subject matter calls for the open destruction of boundaries: in geography, in relationships, in language. The result is a beautiful, accomplished novel: as ambitious as it is generous, as moving as it is smart. He falls in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert's song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on. But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel.
Its author has described it as a "futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound". It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant although largely allegorical analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century. Over the course of the book, we partake in magisterial synopses of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandernburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, in which the geography will not stay still.
Even the architecture is given to shifting behaviour, the church steeple "slanting perceptibly Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature: a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic; and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many. Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation.
We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, as a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents.
Andres Neuman: Traveller Of The Century ABC Big Ideas TV podcast
Whatever one's opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Try Independent Premium free for 1 month. Independent Premium Comments can be posted by members of our membership scheme, Independent Premium. It allows our most engaged readers to debate the big issues, share their own experiences, discuss real-world solutions, and more.
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