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The Town of Life

A WINTER’S NIGHT and the horses puff in the cold, while the coachman cracks his whip and Hans, the traveler inside, feels as if his teeth are chattering loose. “I-s the-ere mu-mu-ch f-f-urther t-oo g-oo?” he calls out to the driver, but though he can see a small city in the frozen air ahead it seems “to be moving in step with them, and getting no nearer.” It is a city that deserves its name: Wandernburg. Only when he closes his eyes does the town begin to approach, but when he opens them again it is to realize that this place will prove even harder to leave than it has been to enter.

Andrés Neuman’s ambitious book is the first of this young writer’s four novels to appear in English, and its opening pages announce a rather deceptive pedigree. A mysterious stranger arrives in an even more perplexing town, and is held there by something he does not understand. Not that Wandernburg lacks interest. The place comes complete: a German city of the old order with all the working parts, churches and cafes and a town hall made of “grandeur and gypsum.” It has its own class distinctions and local notables, its merchants and night-watchmen and a few down-and-outers, such as the nameless hurdy-gurdy man who soon becomes Hans’s friend. It even has its own criminal, a masked rapist who hunts at night, armed with a knife and a rope—a figure whom Neuman uses to give this loosely constructed book whatever suspense it has.

But Wandernburg does have one great peculiarity. Its streets and squares seem perpetually to change their location, and shops switch from one side of the lane to another, and Hans never finds himself able to take the same way twice. You will recognize Kafka here, and Calvino, and Kafka-in-Calvino, and maybe also the Kazuo Ishiguro of The Unconsoled. Your heart may sink. There are many pages on the road ahead, and the thought of them would be easier to bear if the innkeeper at Hans’s lodging were not called “Herr Zeit”—Mr. Time—and if Hans himself had a last name as well as a first. Even Josef had his K.

Yet be patient. This aspect of the novel seems imitative rather than allusive, but Neuman has other masters to draw on as well, and he discards all the mystification once it has done its necessary work and cut Wandernburg off from the world outside. He has other hands to help him, and the most interesting of them belong to the creator of another Hans.

For Wandernburg is a species of the Magic Mountain. Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp had to go to the self-enclosed world of an Alpine sanatorium before he could talk about the fate of Europe and the course of its history. Neuman’s traveler does it in this “indeterminate” spot on the border between Saxony and Prussia, a town blown from one kingdom to the other with each shift of the political breeze. Mann’s character makes his journey in the years just before one great continental war; Neuman’s, just after an earlier one. The events of Kafka’s world may lie outside any explicit sense of history, but Traveler of the Century owes its final allegiance to a realist tradition, and can be placed firmly within it.

We are at the end of the 1820s. Goethe is still alive but the French Revolution is long over, the once-promising Napoleon is now a ghost, and the restored ancien régime is doing its best to hang on. This is Metternich’s Europe; but also that of the young dreamers known as Romantics. In Wandernburg Hans finds himself living in a Biedermeier world, presided over by a young woman named Sophie Gottlieb, who uses the movements of her fan—waving it languidly or snapping it shut—to control the conversation at her weekly salon.

Many of this novel’s best pages take place in and around that salon, pages in which a politically-assorted group of Wandernburg’s inhabitants talk through the issues of their times. Or maybe of ours. Sophie’s father, a city counselor, announces one evening that he considers the new German “customs union unwise … the small shopkeepers would end up being driven to the wall.” Some of his guests announce their belief in free trade, and Hans wonders who might “preside over … a Europe that would think like one country.” On other nights they speak of the relation between national sovereignty and individual freedom; they talk of Schopenhauer, the rights of women, and the degree to which one religion may “cohabit with any other creeds or denominations.” They argue about music, and often about books, in a way that allows Neuman to define his own purpose, making Hans suggest that the new historical fiction of Walter Scott must treat the past as a “laboratory in which to analyze the present.”

Good talk is seductive, and about halfway through the novel Hans’s tongue will do its work. Sophie has long been engaged to the vapid though athletic son of Wandernburg’s richest family, but this anachronistically forward girl still begins to slip into Hans’s room at the inn. At the same time the young man finally announces his hitherto hidden profession. He is a translator, comfortable in many languages, and familiar with the work of his century’s poets, from Coleridge to Leopardi to Pushkin. By now that metaphorical link between the traveler and the translator is a bit too well-worn, and thankfully Neuman does not push it very hard. What he does instead, as Hans’s and Sophie’s affair grows in lubricity, is to replace the salon’s discussions of Europe itself with a much tighter focus on the republic of letters. The cosmopolitan attention to politics narrows down to a concentration on the world of books, to a world united through, and perhaps only through, its literature.

For just around the time that Hans reaches for Sophie’s corset, the old Goethe turned in the real historical Weimar to his secretary Eckermann and said that “national literature is now rather an unmeaning term; the epoch of World-literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” Those words have gotten a new currency in recent years, in an age of a globalized English and of writers such as Orhan Pamuk, who find so much of their audience in translation, and this book’s own oddities are both suggestive and attractive. Born in Argentina, Neuman has lived in Spain for much of his life, and Traveler of the Century might stand as an example of Goethe’s words, especially for those of us who must read it in this racily fluent translation: a Spanish-language love-song to German literature, in English.

Language and thought are inseparable, and translation impossible; yet those same thoughts are always and inescapably heterogeneous, our ideas never come from our own language alone, and translation is forever necessary. Or so Neuman suggests—but then so does any seminar. What makes this novel bigger than its ideas are the moments when his characters roll the different shapes and harmonies of the words themselves across their tongues. This is true above all of an extraordinary scene near the end. The first friend Hans makes in Wandernburg is the old organ-grinder, whom most of the city regards as little more than a beggar. But the man has seen everything over the years, and to Hans he stands as a guide to the way of the world. In the book’s last pages he fades into death, and as a last request asks Hans to tell him the name, in as many languages as he can, of the instrument on which he has built his life. Leierkasten, Drehorgel, organetto di Barberia, straatorgel, positiv, fataorgan, realejo, katarynka, barrel organ, hurdy-gurdy. All are different—and all the same.

Of course Neuman’s old man is himself an allusion. He is Der Leiermann, the “strange old organ grinder,” of Schubert’s sublime and desolate song-cycle, Die Winterreise, composed in 1827. This book comes stuffed with such references, a jumble sale of the past, and yet Neuman never indulges himself in the kind of ungrounded sampling that characterizes so much of our new world literature, in which allusiveness stands as its own justification and reward. He works always with a sense of purpose, at once political and aesthetic.

Traveler of the Century is too baggily long, and its narrative springs sometimes creak as it lumbers towards some resolution. Even the sex grows tiresome, inventive though it is. But there are moments here of exhilarating beauty, the talk commands attention, and even the melodrama of Wandernburg’s masked rapist offers both a creepy chill and a satisfying denouement. Andrés Neuman writes about history and literature and the relation between them with an intelligence that his American contemporaries cannot match. His first book in English must not be his last.

Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith College and is the author of The Bells in their Silence: Travels through Germany. His new book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, will be published later this year.