Review: Traveler Of The Century

Andres Neuman’s Traveler of the Century  is a self-consciously literary novel. Its characters all serve clear symbolic roles, the central romance is carried out in an intellectual salon, and the main plot follows the seasons. Such a set-up can easily turn boring and pretentious; for my money, Neuman manages the opposite.

From the beginning Neuman engages the reader by not giving anything away.  Even the setting in mid-1800s Germany slowly peeks out of comments and allusions rather than beng dropped in some exposition bomb. The characters similarly reveal what they reveal about theselves slowly.  The titular traveler is a point-of-view character whose mysterious nature remains in the shadows for quite some time. That’s true even though we spend some time falling in love with him.

Neuman is not shy about using his characters and the salon setting to take the reader down some intellectual side trips. The romance at the center of the narrative is explicity a romance of the mind, and Neuman makes that work by taking us through the arguments and mental jousting that makes up such a romance.

The salon and the romance also provide a backdrop for Neuman to talk about literature and writing in the novel itself. This is all nicely metafictional – commenting on setting inside his setting at the same time he’s explaining how and why setting affects a work, for example. Neuman finds the right tone to make this interesting. He winks enough to show the reader that he knows he’s commenting on himself, while also keeping the analysis and literary argument sensible and engaging.  Even that has two levels: the argument makes sense in the abstract, and also in the setting coming out of the mouths of the characters. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, and he does it while keeping the whole thing engaging.  First rate work.

An important sidelight of that is the amount of time and space his characters spend talking about translation, which is because they’re translators.  Of course I read the work in translation, which adds aother nice loop.  The translation discussions are some of the most diverting in the book, even without realizing that I was reading them in translation.

There are some places where the plot rambles a bit, and some bits that one could read as extraneous. It’s not a maximally tight tale.  I found the diversions more interesting than distracting, but I can clearly see the other position.

In many ways, how much a reader likes this work is going to depend on how well the  reader thinks Neuman has executed this writing.  I think he’s written a very engaging, multi-layered work that lives up to the literary aspirations it wears on its sleeve.  I can easily imagine a reader being less charmed than I was.  But they’re wrong.

Strongly recommended.


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