It is easy to be conservative where literary taste is concerned, sticking to books that have passed that old cliché Test of Time™, but dangerously limiting. To ignore a book such as Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century simply because it was only published in 2009 (and translated into English in 2012) constitutes a crime against literature. Gross negligence, or something like that.
Set in the early 1800s, Hans – our ‘traveller’ – arrives in the fictional German city of Wandernburg, intending simply to pass through, a task that proves more difficult than expected. Initially distracted by way of befriending an old man playing a barrel-organ in the town square, he becomes more and more involved with the life of the city and its inhabitants.
Wandernburg is almost a character in itself. Its borders undefined, its very streets seeming to shift around at will, it disorientates both characters and readers immediately, and provides the novel with a near-dreamlike atmosphere; meanwhile, the events of the novel continue, the setting concrete and the characters convincing, with the result that we become absorbed in the realism but feel like we’re dreaming.
And so we follow Hans through his ‘sojourn’. There is a love interest – betrothed to another. Drunkenness is frequent. A Jack-the-Ripper-style killer enters the scene. Verbal battles abound over politics, philosophy, the fate of the world, so heated that it soon becomes hard to tell what the various lovers in the novel enjoy more: the sex or the conversation. The city begins to feel like the whole world, and we start to doubt whether he will ever escape, or whether he even can.
The best novels always make us think, but we rarely get a novel so rich in ideas and yet as earthy as this one is. It provokes us – but always it turns our glance back towards life.