Traveller of the Century is, in many ways, an unusual novel. At first it appears curiously old fashioned for the work of a young Argentinian: set in Germany in the early nineteenth century, it begins with a young man, Hans, a translator by profession, arriving in the town of Wandernburg. Presumably the town’s name (it is not a real place) is meant to echo Han’s wanderings, though the town itself seems to have a propensity to wander, its streets and landmarks never being in quite the same place. Hans presents himself as an inveterate traveller:
“I think that in order to know where we want to be we have to travel to other places.”
The irony is that he arrives in Wandernburg at the beginning of the novel and remains there throughout – and at 600 pages, that is a lengthy ‘throughout’, again suggesting a pastiche of the 19th century novel. Though love is eventually to blame for his stay, initially he is delayed simply by an inexplicable indecision – but he is not alone:
“Travellers come here, people who have lost their way or were headed somewhere else, lone wolves. And they always end up staying here.”
Neuman includes a couple of trusted plots, in particular a love triangle in which Hans falls for a young woman, Sophie, whose father he meets. Sophie, unfortunately, is engaged to the local landowner and soon to be married. There is also a whodunit as a masked killer stalks the streets attacking women. The novel is not, however, plot driven – take, for example, Hans relationship with an old organ grinder whom he befriends, frequently spending his evenings at the cave on the outskirts of town that the organ grinder calls home. Similarly, his friendship with a Spanish merchant who has become equally at home in the German town does little to advance the story. Above all, consider the extensive scenes set during Sophie’s salons as art, history and philosophy are discussed at length. Neuman makes his intentions clear during one of these discussions:
“I believe the past should not be a distraction, but a laboratory in which to analyse the present.”
It is in sustaining the reader’s interest during these many abstract conversations that Neuman shows his skill as a writer, and demonstrates that what at first seems a strangely old fashioned story is in fact channelled directly from the present (take for example a discussion about a single European market and how much political union this would involve). It is not accident that the novel takes place in the shadow of the failure of the French Revolution, just as we now live in shadow of the failure of the Russian Revolution. (For many South American countries, of course, that sense of defeated radicalism is even more recent).
In other words, Traveller of the Century is an intellectual book, but one that wears its intellect lightly. Yes, Hans and Sophie discuss translation at length, but they reinvigorate themselves with bouts of surprisingly contemporary sex. Who said ideas were boring?