Translation Is A Love Affair: Traveler of the Century

05/23/2012 4:00 AM |

Traveler of the Century
By Andrés Neuman, Trans. Nick Caistor 
and Lorenza Garcia
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“The original is unfaithful to the translation.”
-Jorge Luis Borges

The novelist Harry Mathews once called translation the paradigm, the exemplar of all writing. 
“[I]t is translation,” he wrote, “that demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving speech, that supremely human gift.” I’m guessing Andrés Neuman would agree. The Argentinian writer’s eagerly anticipated introduction to the English-speaking world is a novel of, about, and via translation. Its protagonist—the charming, enigmatic, and restless Hans—is himself a translator and the title’s traveler, and his wayfaring lands him in a mysterious, early-19th-century German city somewhere between Saxony and Prussia for what he expects will be a brief stopover.

Wandernburg—like one of Calvino’s “invisible cities”—is a city with indefinite coordinates, conjured by Neuman as an unnavigable place out-of-time and defying precision. Even fiction cannot fix the fluidity of the imaginative terrain, so Wandernburg is left to flux—its streets shifting out of memory, repositioning day-to-day and transforming in whole from one season to the next. As his sojourn extends seemingly against his will, Hans befriends an itinerant old organ grinder, who serves as a sort of rooted foil to his restlessness, and soon finds himself engaged in weekly salons at the home of Sophie Gottlieb, a striking young freethinker with whom Hans quickly falls in love (despite her engagement to a powerful local aristocrat). These gatherings afford the novel several long digressions into post-Napoleonic European politics, nascent feminism, international literature, philosophy, religion, globalism, free trade, and more.

From one angle, Traveler of the Century resembles a classic historical novel, but one filtered through a modern lens. (One mode of translation is temporal.) At one gathering, Hans delivers some meta-analysis, arguing that the past “should not be a distraction, but a laboratory in which to analyse the present.” Just as Hans rebels against the conservative mores of the Restoration, Neuman breaks the conventions of narrative clarity, particularly with regard to dialogue. Characters’ speech is transcribed sans quotation marks (with occasional parentheses for subtle demarcation), blending and enmeshing the voices within the broader narrative, suggesting they are perhaps less distinguishable from the authorial fabric than we usually assume. There are also disorienting stretches of dialogue in which only one side is revealed, as though we are listening to someone speak on the telephone. Similarly, the lines between metaphor and the narrative “reality” are often blurred. At one point, Hans offers a defense of this poetic preference for ambiguity: “To me a patch of fog seems more real than a precise outline.” The reader might catch hints toward something mystical at play amid Hans’s vague backstory and his vaguer travails, but all this is left shrouded in the book’s general enigma.

The novel flirts with genre and style, oscillating between romance, thriller, classic historical fiction, poetry, magic realism, and epistolary forms. Ultimately, though, Traveler of the Century is a love story: “Sophie looked at Hans. Hans looked at Sophie. Sophie said things to him with her eyes. Perhaps Hans translated them.” Hans and Sophie’s amorous rendezvous are rendered with the couple wrapped in collaborative translation as their affections and their shared passion for language become one. This vivid entangling of translation and love is no loose metaphor; it is the central conceit of the novel: “Hans and Sophie alternated between books and bed, bed and books, exploring one another in words and reading one 
another’s bodies.”

The posthumously preeminent Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño (for whom travelers were also the utmost rebels) wrote that “[t]he literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and to a handful of his blood brothers.” If Traveler of the Century is any indication, Bolaño’s prescience will pan out. With this ambitious novel, Neuman obliterates boundaries and presents a masterwork that builds bridges across the continents and eras.