Book Review: Traveller of the Century
Puzzled by the nearly universal, international acclaim, one reader finds Andrés Neuman’s new novel superficial and clumsy
"Who is responsible for deciding where a work sits in the literary hierarchy…?" asks Hans, the protagonist of Andrés Neuman’s prize-winning novel, Traveller of the Century. "Who decides which books are nonsensical? The critics? The press? The universities? Oh, please don’t start telling us that all opinions are relative, let’s show some nerve, someone has to have the courage to."
All right, then, as one of the critics, unwilling on this occasion, I’ll give it a go.
I say unwilling, because this 564-page novel is the recipient of Spain’s prestigious Alfaguara Prize, and of the equally prestigious National Critics Prize in the USA, and its English-language publisher is one of the best in the business.
The novel has been called a masterpiece, Neuman himself compared to Tolstoy and Musil; no less a figure than Roberto Bolaño has declared that "the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers." So I expected to find it wonderful, and because I love reading novels, and relish long, meaty, thought-provoking ones, I wanted to find it wonderful, too.
Alas, at least as far as I can see, it isn’t wonderful at all.
The novel is set, apparently, in the 1820s. Its protagonist, Hans, a young German who studied philosophy at the radical university of Jena during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, is now travelling the world, earning his living as a translator.
He arrives in the provincial town of Wandernburg, a vaguely magical-realist place whose streets appear to change direction, and gets stuck there. Supposedly (that is, according to the book’s jacket) this is because of a fascinating and wise old organ-grinder who lives in a cave outside the town, but in fact (judging by the number of pages devoted to her) it is because he is lusting after Sophie, daughter of a local bourgeois family fallen on hard times.
Neuman uses unusual punctuation, often running description and dialogue together, but this doesn’t make for difficult reading; in fact it adds a bit of life to the prose, which is otherwise worse than pedestrian, evincing such a poor feeling for language that at first I thought neither of the two co-translators could possibly be native speakers of English. So I checked, but as far as I can discover, this is not the case.
A few short examples of the problem: here is a horse "speeding along at a ceremonial trot"; here is a man’s head "revolving as the coach rolled by"; here is Herr Gottlieb bowing "in a way that sent his whiskers flying".
Take a moment to think about those images. Whether or not the translation is faulty, the language isn’t the novel’s only limitation.
Sophie is a kind of feminist avant la lettre, hosting a Friday afternoon salon, where "the topics alternated between the trivial and the lofty" – or more accurately, between trivial discussions of lofty subjects, political, philosophical and literary. The tiny salon is frequented every week by the same people, all of them caricatures: pedantic Professor Mietter, silly, giggly Frau Pietzine, the money-focused Jewish merchant Levin, and so on.
Shallow pairings of historical events with the present-day situation in Europe fail to satisfy, whether we look backwards or forwards: the participants sound like undergraduates, each regurgitating undigested mouthfuls from a stew of required reading.
Neuman uses many of the salon discussions as symbolic representations of sex, and they’re awful. Here is Sophie reading aloud, "alternating between the long and the short sounds with a rocking movement, modifying the punctuation to suit her breathing rather than any grammatical requirements".
Hans is listening to her: "He half-closed his eyes and in his imagination tried to enter Sophie’s throat, to float inside it, to be part of her air. The air undulating in her neck like warm liquid. She recites as though she were drinking tea, thought Hans." Sophie asks Hans to finish reading the passage for her. "Suddenly she fixed her eyes on the succulent bulge of Hans’s throat, a nest of words…. This is terrible, thought Hans."
I thought so, too. But unfortunately there was worse to come. Sophie is miming sexual intercourse by poking her finger repeatedly through the handle of her teacup. No one apart from Hans seems to notice, not even her fiancé. Hans is annoyed about the fiancé, a thick-witted fop. Sophie consoles him:
"Don’t fret, jealous one, she purred." And eventually Hans succeeds in getting her into bed: "From the first mutual frisson, they both knew that yes. Yes because yes."
While elsewhere in the city: "A sandy moon turns full, a moon caught unawares, a moon with nowhere." This may be, like Captain Ahab’s gold doubloon, "Spanishly poetic", but it doesn’t make much sense in English.
In the end, says Hans to Sophie, "the meaning of the world has become clear to us." I’m happy for them. Personally, I’m awaiting further elucidation, including from this book.
Maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe I’ve missed everything. But the comparisons on the jacket of this book bemuse me: lacking Musil’s superbly drawn characters, lacking Tolstoy’s engaging plots, lacking Bolaño’s gift for metaphor, arguably extravagant but never ridiculous, Traveller of the Century seems superficial, overlong and written with an often embarrassing clumsiness.
Andrés Neuman is a young man and may do – may already have done – much better work. Anyway, don’t take my word for it; have a look at this novel yourself. But approach with caution, or better still, if you can, approach the original Spanish, or some other translation – German, French, Swahili - anything but this one. ÷
Traveller of the Century
by Andrés Neuman, from the Spanish
Trans. by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2012