As spring begins to warm up my neck of the woods, what a joy to read a book so filled with life and ideas and pleasure, a book that contemplates what it means to wake up and wander as well as what it means to settle down in repose. Traveler of the Century (El viajero del siglo, 2009; tr. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, 2012) is a long book of delights.
Traveler of the Century, which probably takes place sometime in the late 1820s, begins as Hans approaches the city of Wandernburg. Though he can see it out the window of his carriage for some time, his driver cannot tell him when (or if) they’ll get there, Wandernburg being one of those strange cities that moves around on the map somewhere between Saxony and Prussia. But he does arrive, planning to stay only a night or two. Hans is a wanderer himself, never staying anywhere long, never feeling nostalgia for “he preferred to think about his next journey.”
But Wandernburg is perhaps harder to leave than it is to enter. Hans misses the coach out of town and decides to stay another day at the inn run by Herr Zeit (Mister Time) — then another day, and another, etc. He meets friends, including an old organ grinder (one of my favorite characters in some time) who lives out in a cave and plays his organ every day in the market square, which, though the rest of the city streets seem to shift position through the night, always remains at the center of Wandernburg.
Interestingly, Wandernburg’s shifting coordinates actually lend it a timeless feel, and while streets change around them, the characters by contrast feel relatively fixed (just an illusion), something that Hans has never experienced before. Indeed, for the first time in his life, he is questioning whether staying or leaving is best. He and the organ grinder debate the topic often. But when Hans meets Sophie Gottlieb, who charms him and us, his decision to leave easier to put off.
Sophie and her father host a salon every Friday afternoon. Hans figures out a way to get himself invited, and we as readers are delighted to watch their flirtation develop over the course of pages and pages while everyone talks about politics and philosophy and art. This flirtation carries on despite the fact (or is it because of the fact, Sophie wonders) that Sophie is engaged to marry Rudi Wilderhaus, a man and family so fine and noble that Sophie’s father takes Hans slight gasp at hearing of Sophie’s engagement as a gasp at the magnificence of Herr Wilderhaus himself.
Encouraging Hans not to give up, the organ grinder analyzes the meaning of the flowers Sophie puts out for the salons, and he also encourages Hans to stop worrying about whether he should leave: “But isn’t that what love is, the old man said, being happy to stay?” And so Hans stays longer than he ever thought he would, and his flirtations with Sophie pay off as they begin an affair of the body and mind. Of course, this only begins on page 290: “From the first mutual frisson, they both knew that yes. Yes because yes.”
While I was enjoying the book thoroughly up to this point, at this moment Neuman ratchets up the fun as Hans and Sophie begin to translate together. If at first translating is a pretext to help them spend time together — and they (and we) delight in their discussions about poetry and words — soon it is difficult to separate translation and sex, both with very real practical and theoretical problems. And no one wants to. In a nice back-and-forth with other members of the salon, Hans finally thinks, “Someone who disbelieved in the possibilities of translation was sceptical of love,” reminding me of other fine books that mix books and sex (A.S. Byatt’s brilliant Possession and Jacques Poulin’s short and tender Translation Is a Love Affair).
When reading, I find that often I am looking forward to the next book on my list, no matter how much I’m enjoying whatever book it is I’m currently reading. That wasn’t the case here. I was happy to stay, sad now that the time has passed, a problem inherent in the novel. While Hans at one point says, “The fact is, I don’t see any point in watches, they never give me the time I want,” time keeps moving; that lovely spring slowly moves toward winter. As Sophie says, “time passes through our souls, and that is why they change.”
In that context, their discussion of Quevedo’s sonnet “On the Brevity of Living and the Nothingness of Having Lived,” a discussion held in the early days of their passion, to be wrenching.
I’m focusing on only one theme that wanders through this novel of ideas, ideas that, though discussed in this shifting city 200 years ago, are still relevant in today’s world. Maybe time hasn’t changed us as much as we might think. That said, for me the novel’s greatest strength wasn’t the “ideas” (in fact, they might be the greatest weakness); it’s the love. It may be sentimental, but it’s the love between Hans and Sophie and many of the other characters that kept me going, regardless of what they were saying. It was the love with which Neuman toiled to craft this city and its inhabitants (toil that we can see on the page) that, even if it’s not, made it all feel new.