FICTION: Traveler of the Century (2009)

Traveler of the Century, a luminous 561-page novel set in the 1820s in a small town in Germany, amidst horse-drawn carriages and oil lamps, follows a year in the life of Hans, an itinerant translator, as he develops two strong attachments in this town where he had thought he was only passing through. The first is a platonic bond with an old man who plays a barrel organ in the market square and who lives in poverty, yet can easily be contented watching the trees or listening to the wind. The second is a passionate love with Sophie, who wanted to go to university but who is constrained by the times and by her overbearing widowed father into settling for an engagement to a vacant aristocrat whose wealth and position will uplift her family. On Friday evenings, Sophie hosts a French-Enlightenment-style salon where guests discuss European politics and literature over canapés and tea brought by servants. It is here that Hans and Sophie’s romance takes root. It later blossoms as they jointly undertake a project to translate contemporary European poetry into German. For them, intellectual compatibility and sexual compatibility are two sides of the same page. But how can these progressives live out their dreams in a world where women wear corsets, where tongues wag, where excursions are chaperoned, and where the small town’s priest keeps a log book of every lapse of virtue among his parishioners?

Although I read the novel in translation (the author, Andrés Neuman, is an Argentinian-Spaniard), I think it’s still fair to say that the prose is original and beautiful, the vocabulary a delight. Here for instance is my favorite sentence in the book, from a description of Sophie’s family’s drawing room: “Other adornments had been added, mostly in Louis XVIII style, in a vain effort to conceal the fact that time had passed; the more modern furniture showed a different kind of sobriety, a metamorphosis, as though they were insects mutating unimaginably slowly towards rounded forms and paler woods (poplar, Hans suspected, or perhaps ash or cherry wood), as though the battles, treaties, freshly spilt blood and new round of armistices had undermined mahogany’s traditional stronghold, besieging it with inlays of amaranth and ebony, overwhelming it with rosettes, lilies, less weighty, more carefree crowns.” These lines are marked by a keen awareness of historical context—something that is ever present in the characters’ prolonged conversations about novels and philosophy. The triumph of this novel is that it manages to delight your mind with ideas while also crafting characters who wring your heart.

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