Traveller of the Century

Traveller of the Century

This book looked dauntingly large when the review copy arrived, and it weighs in at 584 pages, which is why it’s taken a while to appear on my blog. Anyone following the #translationthurs hashtag on Twitter will also have noticed that I was reading Traveller of the Century over quite a few weeks…

Here’s what the publishers say about it:

In post-Napoleonic Germany, a traveller on his way to Dessau stops off for a night in the mysterious city of Wandernburg. He intends to move on the following day, but the town begins to ensnare him with its strange, shifting geography. After befriending an old organ grinder and falling for the daughter of a local merchant, he soon finds it impossible to leave.

A novel of philosophy and love, politics and waltzes, history and the here-and-now, Traveller of the Century is a journey into the soul of Europe, penned by one of the most exciting South-American writers of our time.

Meanwhile one of the quotes on the back cover calls it:

A novel of ideas, somewhere between Kafka’s The Castle and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain… (Publishers Weekly, USA)

Now, I’ve never managed to finish The Magic Mountain, but I’ve read The Castle and these two books shaped my preconceptions of what it was going to be like – long, wordy and more than a little odd. What I wasn’t prepared for, was the South American influence – I kept forgetting that this wasn’t a German novel. The author, Andrés Neuman, is also a poet, essayist and translator, and his love of words and a well-turned phrase shines through. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia have done an excellent job keeping the poetry in the translation.

If I were ever in any danger of forgetting that this is a modern novel, however, the book itself soon pulled me up short. It is also a love story between Herr Hans, the eponymous traveller, and Sophie Gottlieb, who happens to be engaged to a local aristocrat. And then there’s the sub-plot about a masked rapist and the efforts of two Lieutenants Glück (father and son) to identify and arrest him. The cast of supporting characters features the organ-grinder, who lives in a cave, his friends and his dog; a Spanish merchant by the name of Urquijo; the members of the Gottliebs’ literary salon; a rather unpleasant priest, Father Pigherzog; and the innkeeper, Herr Zeit, and his family. The names are all chosen with relish (I know I missed a few footballing references, and may well have overlooked others too…), and I particularly enjoyed the way Urquijo was variously spelled Urquiho or Urquixo to reflect the German attempts at pronouncing the Spanish sound.

The book is also about literary translation, and the translation of poetry in particular. Hans is a translator and it is when he and Sophie begin to work on an anthology of European poetry together that they gain the cover they need to jump into bed. It was the sex most of all that reminded me that this isn’t actually by Kafka or Mann. I would never previously have considered translating poetry a particularly erotic activity, but here translation and sex are intricately interlinked:

“During the four hours they spent alone three times a week, Hans and Sophie alternated between books and bed, bed and books, exploring one another in words and reading one another’s bodies.” (p. 335)

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never been particularly confident about poetry. It’s definitely a weak spot in my literary education, yet this book also managed to fill in a few blanks for me there. As Sophie and Hans translate European poetry, they discuss its nuances, techniques and so on, and I was able to “listen in” on their conversations and learn something myself. It must have been particularly interesting for Caistor and Garcia to translate into English a South American author’s description of two Germans translating Byron! (See here for an interview with the two of them.)

One idiosyncracy of the author’s style is that he uses no speech marks, and doesn’t break up paragraphs according to who is speaking. At first I found this intensely irritating, and thought it was far too long a novel to be messing around like that; gradually though, I got used to it, and by the end I appreciated his flowing paragraphs and the way one speaker would cut into another. Another is his overt use of past politics – the Congress of Vienna, a proposed customs union between the German states, the Luddites, mechanisation of agriculture, for example – to discuss modern realities, whether in the conversation at the salons or through the actions and talk of the minor characters. While this could easily grow tedious or become heavy handed, it is in fact handled with skill.  I also appreciated the way the various sub-plots were interwoven with the main storyline so that each element cast new light on another.

Finally, while the e-book edition sounds tempting in terms of reducing the physical weight of the thing, the book itself is beautiful. Pushkin Press have produced a thoroughly handsome paperback with decent paper and great typography and layout – something that’s all too rare these days, yet the translation publishers (And Other Stories and Peirene Press for example) seem to specialise in it.

All in all, an excellent read and huge credit to all concerned!

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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4 Responses to Traveller of the Century

  1. Tony says:

    Loved this, a wonderful tale of love, translation and organ-grinding 🙂

  2. Pingback: Behold a Pale Horse by Peter Tremayne – a rant « a discount ticket to everywhere

  3. Pingback: Review: Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman « Alex In Leeds

  4. Pingback: Excitements and Excess in Translation | a discount ticket to everywhere

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