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Andrés Neuman: El viajero del siglo (Traveller of the Century)

The hero of this novel, Hans (we never learn his surname and, when it is brought up, it is subtly avoided), has just arrived in the (fictitious) town of Wandernburg, some time in the early nineteenth century, after the Napoleonic Wars. He is passing through on his way to Dassau, planning to stop a night or two. He stays at the local hostelry, run by the wittily named Mr. Zeit (German for time), telling him that he will only be there for a night or two. But Wandernburg has some surprises for him. Firstly, it seems to live up to its name (wandern is the German for wander). He finds that from one day to the next, the streets do not seem to be in the same place they were the previous night. Secondly, Álvaro, a Spanish merchant he will later meet and befriend, tells him that it is impossible to know exactly where Wandernburg is on the map, as it is always changing place. He apparently means that it belongs now to Saxony and now to Prussia but there is a suspicion that he means more than that. Thirdly, Álvaro tells him that people often come for a short while, en route to somewhere else, but end up staying, though they are not really sure why. It is just what happens to them. He books his room with Mr. Zeit for the next night only but keeps on staying. He even books a place on a carriage that is leaving but then does not take it up. Nothing is stopping him from leaving but he just does not leave. As well as the moving streets and uncertain geography, the town has its other mysteries. People seem to eagerly hurry to bed when it gets dark. Hans is not sure why. Mr. Zeit tells him, by way of explanation for the lack of gas lights, that people do not need to stay up, as they go to bed when it gets dark and get up at dawn. However, we learn that there is a sort of Jack the Ripper presence in the town, though whether that is the reason for the early nights is not clear.

Hans gradually makes friends, one of the reasons he gives for staying on. His first friend is the local organ grinder. He, too, does not have a name or, rather, he does but so dislikes it that he prefers not to use it and just be called Organ Grinder. They gradually get to know one another (and the organ grinder’s dog, Franz) and Hans spends a lot of time in the cave where the organ grinder lives, just chatting to him and his two friends, Reichardt, a day worker, and Lamberg, who works in the local textile factory. But he gradually meets other people, in particular Mr Gottlieb, a retired tea and textile importer. Gottlieb has weekly salons, which Hans attends, where he meets Álvaro, a Spaniard who is the local representative of an English textile firm and, more particularly, Mr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie. Sophie is engaged to the son of a local wealthy textile family but clearly the choice has been her father’s, not hers. Neuman entertains us with various serious discussions at these salons, covering such topics as the differences between the Spanish, French, English and Germans (and the differences between the Saxons and the Prussians), whether it is better to travel or stay at home and, if you travel, what is the purpose as well as a discussion of German unification and even, probably anachronistically, European unification, starting with a trade community, some 125 years before the European Economic community was formed. Religion, English poetry (a very detailed discussion on the relative merits of the various poets of the time), art and a whole range of other topics are discussed, with Sophie showing a strong sense of independence and feminism.

But while these discussions drag on – and, frankly, they often seem interminable – the plot is also moving slowly. It is inevitable that something will happen between Hans and Sophie and, of course it does, with her father and her fiancé remaining blissfully ignorant. Jack the Ripper keeps up his work. Hans helps educate Lisa and Thomas, the Zeit children, but also gets a job translating and editing for Brockhaus, aided by Sophie, with Neuman showing his humour, suggesting the pair write an article on Kant and menstruation, when the two topics come up together. Overall, it is certainly an interesting book and well told but it is far too long, too much chit-chat, which, however illuminating, ends up being excessive, while the plot just drags.

Publishing history

First published by Alfaguara in 2009
First English translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2012
Translated by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia