The Traveler of the Century by Andres Neuman

1 Mar

I began reading this book, in all sincerity, while on a plane to Spain. I really thought that I would get 564 pages read in a weeks time, including the flight, waiting in airports, and during all of the coffee shop observing/writing/coffee drinking/reading I was going to do. What I hadn’t counted on was being extremely interested in exploring Madrid. So, sadly, I read the hefty book slowly between October and February. I’m glad I did.

“The Traveler of the Century” is about a traveler during the turn of the 19th century.  I do not know much about Spanish and German history and I understand this to be historical fiction, as Wandernburg–the city where the story takes place–is fictional.

The greatest revelation of this novel is that it is translation. That most of the characters speak in languages that are not there first must reflect the culture of Europe, especially during this period. Our main character, Hans is a translator and poet, and is in Wandernburg for only a short time.

Until he meets the organ grinder;until he meets Sophie. Sophie holds salons for conversation about literature, politics, and culture. It is here that Hans falls in love with Sophie and the novels biggest conflict begins: Sophie is engaged to be married to someone else.

I have to interject here and tell you something of myself as a reader. I do not like reading long books but I especially love having gotten through a long book. Much like I imagine a runner does not like all of the pain of a marathon but enjoys getting through the marathon and having done it. I also have to confess that I’m training myself with large books to eventually run the triathlon that is “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace.

Neuman brings to the reader many things: a mystery (a thriller even–a subplot of the story is a serial rapist in the very city that seems so quaint and innocent), a romance, a political and social history of Germany and Spain, magical realism–a town that is never quite the same physically and, finally, an ars poetica and an ars poetica about the translation of poetry.

In sum, “The Traveler of the Century” brings a dense text to the reader offering up something rare in the world of reading today: thoughtfulness. The novel is thoughtful in its discussion, giving pages to what feels like real discussion among scholars and readers. There are pages of dialogue where you are not quite sure who is speaking until you learn the voices of the characters and you are not surprised when you find out who is speaking. Neuman writes accurately the way philosophical and political discussions evolve and climax in groups.

Another enchanting aspect of the novel is the musings on so many different topics, this truly is a “novel of ideas.” This is what made reading the novel slowly so meaningful to me. As I read the novel, my Mother became sicker with the cancer she had been recently diagnosed with and her death coincided with a death in the novel. Neuman’s words and ideas surrounding death and dying and grief were so spot on to what was happening in my life, I knew the book had found its way, like most important books in our lives, at the right time.

Overall, I would recommend this book to the literary types and don’t worry if you find yourself saying “but I don’t read historical fiction!” You do now.

Some quotes I especially enjoyed:

“In that case I must introduce you two. He asked Hans’s name, then said: Franz, this is Herr Hans, Herr Hans, this is my dog, Franz” –pg 14 (see also the following video I could not get out of my mind: http://youtu.be/I5Zk2vUmjpk)

“The smokers blew out spirals like ribcages–a smoke animal devoured the patrons. Hans pulled a face.” -pg 15

“He even imagined he could hear someone breathing nervously on the other side of the door. But he could not be sure. Perhaps it was his own breathing, growing gradually deeper, his own breathing, his own, his.” – pg 16

“Although, Hans reflected, perhaps Lamberg’s aim was to find the quickest route to unconsciousness, and this was why he drank as though he were swallowing not only the alcohol but also all the words he never spoke.” -pg 26

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