A Latin American take on Europe
Following his success at Hay on Wye, I’m delighted to see that the Argentinian novelist Andrés Neuman will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this week. His latest novel, Traveller of the Century, is a marvellous, vastly ambitious novel of ideas – stimulating, richly atmospheric, thought-provoking and immensely enjoyable.
In Germany, in the late 1820s, Hans, a young translator travelling to Dessau, arrives at Wandernburg, a “shifting city” whose precise location, somewhere between Saxony and Prussia, cannot be determined on account of its fluctuating co-ordinates.
In this strange, amorphous town where the streets are deserted after 6pm when the nightwatchman cries “Time to go home, everyone! Watch over your fire and your lamps!”, he befriends an organ grinder, and attends a literary salon run by Sophie, a local merchant’s daughter, with whom he falls in love despite her engagement to suave but vacuous aristocrat. On the outskirts of town, in the cave where the organ grinder lives, Hans attends another kind of salon, where a pair of workers, a farm labourer and a factory hand, air their grievances as mechanisation drives down wages and makes work harder to find.
The book is rich with literary and artistic references. An epigraph makes clear that the organ grinder is consciously modelled on the character in “Der Leiermann“, the final song of Schubert’s Winterreise, while the description of a painting on the wall of Sophie’s father’s house, though its artist is not named, is plainly intended to bring Caspar David Friedrich to mind. The high-flown deliberations of this little coterie in their wandering city, meanwhile, recall Swift’s airborne island of Laputa, and the Academy of Lagado, where savants discuss the means of distilling sunlight from cucumbers.
The novel pays homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, as the denizens of Wandernburg, frustrated in their isolated community that sucks people in and saps their will to leave, debate art, literature and the issues of the day. Neuman’s protagonist, like Mann’s, is called Hans, while his friend Alvaro, an exiled Spanish republican, and the reactionary Professor Mietter recall the adversaries Settembrini and Naphta. It also invokes another great German novel of ideas, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, in its sense of time in suspension, its slow, inexorable spiral towards forbidden love – and its psychopath lurking in the city’s shadows.
Discussing historical fiction at Sophie’s salon, Hans dismisses the novels of Walter Scott and his imitators, asserting that “The past should not be a distraction, but a laboratory in which to analyse the present.” Traveller of the Century does just that, a Latin American writer’s exploration of the forces that have shaped modern Europe: the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the post-Napoleonic settlement, nationalism and the drive towards German unification, and its debates about political and economic union are sharply relevant to the current Eurozone crisis. It’s also a rattling good yarn. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Traveller of the Century is translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, and published by Pushkin Press, price £12.99
Andrés Neuman is in conversation with his fellow Argentinian novelist Carlos Gamerro, author of An Open Secret (Pushkin) and The Islands (And Other Stories) and the Edinburgh Makar Ron Butlin on Tuesday, August 21, 1-2pm, at Word Power Books, Edinburgh (admission free). Neuman will also discuss “Ancient Stories With Modern Twists” with Youssef Ziedan, the Egyptian author of Azazeel (Atlantic Books), on Thursday, August 23, from 2-3pm, at the RBS Corner Theatre, Edinburgh (£7/£5 conc.)Tagged in: Andres Neuman, european union, eurozone, Latin American Fiction
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