«The past, just like the classics, is in constant motion»



Andrés Neuman has written four novels, four short-story collections and several collections of poetry, all published since 1998. Born in Buenos Aires in 1977, his family later emigrated to Granada, where he still lives. His fourth novel, El viajero del siglo (Traveller of the Century) won Spain's two most prestigious literary awards, the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize, and is now published in English for the first time. A very modern love story set in post-Napoleonic Germany, it is a novel of ideas that embraces cultural criticism, translation and linguistics, philosophy, sexual politics and our place in the natural world, and combines intellectual investigation with elements of mystery, fantasy and sharp humour. Mark Reynolds catches up with him.

It has a period setting, but Traveller of the Century is far from a conventional historical novel. A mannered social etiquette is in place, but it's a burden that many of the characters actively reject. Lead characters Sophie and Hans don't agonise about an impossible attraction, but act on their sexual impulses and embark on a joyfully unbridled affair that is way beyond the usual boundaries of historical fiction.

"It's funny," Neuman reflects, "because I tend to dislike what we usually call historical novels, and still I found myself involved in writing a story set in the past. Therefore I tried to both pay homage to and to sabotage the genre. I actually did a lot of research about the period, but I promised myself that I wouldn't follow any of the basic rules of historical fiction. That's why none of the characters in Traveller of the Century ever existed, nor is any real episode narrated in the novel, and it takes place in an imaginary space. I think that writers study just in order to feel able to invent. Regarding impossible attractions, they usually have a conservative foundation, since they underline what shouldn't be done. I was more interested in the idea of an unfaithful woman, like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, but without a punishment - or a silly happy ending, of course."

Hans is the traveller of the title, whose voyaging is set aside as soon as he reaches Wandernburg, a 'shifting city' whose very geography and architecture is open to interpretation. There are echoes here of Calvino's Invisible Cities as well as elements of Borges and others.

"I was searching for a space that, on one hand, could work like a metaphor," he explains, "but on the other hand could be also pictured by the reader as a very material place, with identifying buildings, streets and bodies. A city half realistically described, more in a nineteenth-century way, and half oneiric, more in the modern surreal tradition. I agree about the Calvino and Borges echoes. And there are also other hidden Latin American keys in the book. For instance, when Hans arrives in the town and he finds it so tensely quiet that he has the fantasy that everybody is dead, that's a playful reference to Rulfo's Comala. Since there's a powerful tradition of mythical towns in Latin American masters, like Onetti or more obviously García Márquez, I thought it could be fun to transplant that kind of resource to a European context; to take away any exoticism and give it a completely different sense. No longer to capture a supposed regional essence, but in order to attune it with the more globalised and peripheral sensibilities of our internet times. In spite of the apparently classical plot, there's even a Bolaño approach too: that kind of mix, which I love so much in his works, of explicit sex and poetry discussions."

Part of the attraction to the period lies in the fact that in post-Napoleonic Germany, and Europe generally, borders and notions of nationhood were in a state of flux.

"Which they still are, of course," he interjects. "And not always for better. Germany is just a pretext in the novel, a starting point. That's why I decided to invent the place, instead of simply taking a real German city. I thought that Wandernburg should belong to Germany because, apart from being Europe's economic motor, it's a nation that sums up the best and worst of our civilisation: philosophy, arts, technology; nationalism, fascism, exterminations. I was attracted by the idea of constructing a kind of Western Frankenstein, where all national identities (which are basically fictions themselves) could converge. While I was researching the awful Europe of the Bourbon Restoration, I was shocked by the coincidences with our current status quo: a multinational army carefully organised to serve the interests of the powerful countries; increasing control of individuals in the name of collective security; an official distrust towards any ideological debate; an expansion of common commercial deals and a reduction of common social rights... Bonaparte promised a revolution of freedom, achieved the support of most intellectuals (including those from the countries he invaded!), and he finally become an authoritarian emperor. This political betrayal caused a strong conservative wave in Europe that lasted almost half a century. Aren't we pretty much at that post-utopian moment again?"

This moment in history also allows Neuman to reflect on the remnants of medieval society and first stirrings of modernity. Did he set out to show that human nature hasn't changed so very much in the last several hundred years?

"Well, I'm not too essentialist. In fact I think that human nature has changed a lot since ancient times. Love, fear or death can't be experienced in the same way both by a medieval monk who believes in paradise and by a nerd of today who basically believes in the internet. But in my opinion, what happened after French Revolution is not the past, but the beginning of the present. Although some people imagine it now as a slow period, the nineteenth century was the first time in history that human beings managed to move faster than nature. That altered forever our notions of time and space. What if our digital era is a kind of hyper-locomotive or steam engine 2.0? The past, just like the classics, is in constant motion. That's the game of the novel: to try and reflect our era in a nineteenth-century story, like two mirrors in front of each other."

Strong-willed to the point of reckless abandon, Sophie Gottlieb is an unforgettable amalgamation - and celebration - of some of the notable independent-minded women of the period.

"Even though Sophie is an entirely fictional character and isn't meant to represent anyone in particular, before I started writing I studied the lives of some great women who belonged to what we could call the first generation of modern feminism: George Sand, Mary Shelley, etc. It's worth remembering that Shelley not only wrote Frankenstein, but was also the daughter of the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published barely a couple of years after French Revolution. I've always admired the lucidity and speed with which those female intellectuals realised that the Rights of Man were actually the rights of men, and that the Enlightened Father had to be fought with his own weapons: politics, essays, translation, sex life, money. Following this line, I was very interested in two figures: Sophie Mereau, the first German professional translator, to whom my character owes her first name. And Johanna Schopenhauer, who as a young widow ruled a brilliant literary salon (attended by Goethe himself), had many lovers, and was one of the first female authors to earn money selling books written under her true name. It's revealing, and tragic, that the famous son of such a revolutionary mother became the most misogynous philosopher of his century. That's an example of the kind of radical obstacles that had to be faced by these women."

The novel is also about the slipperiness of language, in both everyday conversation and literary translation. Neuman was able to work closely with the translators of the English edition, a process he greatly enjoyed.

"The novel tells a love story between two translators who work together, so it was fun to see how a couple of translators worked on the English version. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García did an excellent job. The three of us (or should I say the five of us, including the two characters?) met up in London during the process. That doesn't often happen. We talked a lot about the book and maybe that was helpful. We were also in touch by email now and then. All translators are different: some contact you almost every day, and some never drop you a single question. I tend to prefer them to ask questions, even if that means there's more work to do. Finally I had the chance to take part in the English proofreading. I made some comments and suggestions and enjoyed it very much. Along with the French, this is the translation I've been most involved with. Everybody agrees the translation sounds very smooth and fluent. Is the tone similar to the original one? That's hard to say. A translation needs an outside point of view, and that takes the book somewhere else. Translators have to suspect of every single word, just as poets do."

One of the great joys in the book is the naturalistic dialogue, which pauses and peters out and gets interrupted just like real-life conversation. This was trickier to pull off than Neuman imagined.

"To be honest, it was a bit of hell," he admits, "at least until I found a way of using punctuation and parentheses that worked. I did a lot of experiments and sketches with those aspects before starting the novel. What I definitely wanted to avoid was that rigid and motionless nineteenth-century kind of dialogue: those literary salons in which a character starts to talk alone, and doesn't stop for twenty pages! No reader could ever take that seriously now. Since my intention was to attempt an experiment between classic and contemporary styles, during Sophie's salon conversations I tried to reproduce the simultaneity of a radio broadcast, with everybody talking at the same time, and the visual dynamism of a TV programme, where the cameras constantly change focus."

Literary criticism, philosophical, political and religious argument are all used to shed light on the characters. But even strongly held opinions are often shown to be a façade. The most grounded character is the nameless organ grinder Hans befriends, whose wisdom stems from admiring and understanding the natural world and from simple pleasures, while Sophie and Hans only truly fulfil themselves through physical action. Perhaps thinking can sometimes be overrated?

"I wouldn't say thinking is overrated, but it shouldn't be isolated either. In a book so loaded with what we call culture, I just needed to point out (and to remind myself) that there are certain wisdoms that you will definitely not take from books or intellectual discourse. That's why the organ grinder, without having read a single line, teaches so many things to the compulsive reader Hans. And that's why, let's add, Sophie and Hans fuck so much. The more they translate together, the more their bodies understand each other; and the more they go to bed, the more they're able to find a common language for their translations. Ted Hodgkinson at Granta summed up their story succinctly: "Translation is sexy!" So there is also a deep link between intellectual and sensual learning. Culture can really be an aphrodisiac. I'm afraid that's not what they teach us in school."

There's a pleasingly egalitarian portrayal of the characters, which dovetails nicely with other observations at the periphery of the story. Hans and Sophie drive the narrative, but we are invited to care about the maid, the inn-keeper's daughter, the organ-grinder's dog, even at one point a fly that lands on a character's hat and may get swatted. Some of those incidental distractions are among the most memorable moments in the book.

"I'm glad you felt so, because I tried to put all my attention on secondary and small characters - including dogs and flies! Franz, the organ grinder's dog, even has his little Joycean moment. I feel uncomfortable when, in a novel or a film, the main roles are OK but everybody around them seems to be fake or stereotypical. I love distractions in narrative, as long as sooner or later they get connected to the central plot. To enlarge the circle of our narrative attention is not the same thing as losing the perspective."

As if to cement his affiliation with the frequently overlooked, in his first novel, Bariloche (published in 1999 when Neuman was just 22, and singled out for praise by Roberto Bolaño) Neuman chose a Buenos Aires dustman as the protagonist.

"I started it when I was nineteen, and I still have great personal affection for that initiatory book, written with the enthusiasm of youth. During the 1990s, Argentina was governed by the awful President Menem, who released from prison the few military torturers who had been condemned in the trials of the '80s, and who fraudulently sold all the public services and natural resources of the country. His government was causing fatal harm to Argentine society. I was searching for a metaphor for the daily degradation of the national middle class, which had elected that president not once, but twice. And I thought that a dustman could work. Someone who, under cover of darkness, takes away all the collective shit left by people who don't want to be responsible for it, or even see it. Maybe that's why we don't like to encounter dustcarts in the streets: that disgusting smell is exactly ours."

Early in the novel there's a description of the joys of making and listening to music that is also a reflection on the craft of storytelling, which reinforces how important an influence music has been on Neuman's own life and writing.

"My parents were both musicians, so I spent my childhood surrounded by music. My mother Delia, who sadly died very young and to whom this novel is dedicated, was a violinist. My father Víctor was an oboist. And my younger brother Diego is now a guitarist and a music teacher. I tried to be a musician myself, but I failed completely. I hadn't the patience or the talent. My parents loved Schubert's songs, and many years later that led me to translate the poems of Winterreise. And some characters and settings of Traveller of the Century are actually inspired by those songs. In Once Argentina I told some stories about music and my family. Music there was a starting point to talk about love, childhood, death or politics. I feel that music has influenced my work in all senses: as a subject, a form and an attitude. In my opinion, writing is not only a matter of talking, but above all a matter of listening. That's why, in Traveller of the Century, the wind is a sort of invisible musical instrument which crosses the whole novel and transports many secrets. But only the organ grinder (and his Schubertian dog Franz) seem to hear it."

Once Argentina (2003) "tells the political and emotional history of a family that came to Argentina from all parts of the world, and of a country whose migratory culture is progressively becoming the culture of our times". Wandernburg too is something of a melting pot, while Hans is restless to immerse himself in different cultures. Is there a linking theme that reflects Neuman's own experiences of being a foreigner in a foreign land?

"In spite of their obvious differences, both novels attempt to reflect on cultural borders, foreignness and migration. I suppose the fact that my family emigrated when I was a child has marked all my writing. But I don't believe that one actually needs to migrate to feel like a stranger. All writers and readers are foreigners; they need fiction to find out who or where they are. And book is precisely the best way of travelling while staying put."

There's a discussion in the book about the impossibility of translating poetry. Are there any plans to translate his own poetry into English or other languages, and is this something he would welcome?

"In fact, a good part of the book is about that unending problem: the impossibility of achieving a perfect translation of poetry, and the linguistic need to insist on striving to achieve it. Personally, I'm quite positive about the freedom of translators. I don't believe much in the faithfulness of translation, particularly in poetry. What translators do is not simply transferring someone else's words into a different language, but transforming their connotations and nuances. Good translators (just like good mistakes!) are able to enhance the original intention. I do feel that foreign languages teach you a lot about your mother tongue. Maybe that's what poetry is about: looking at your mother tongue as if it were foreign. I would love for my poetry books to get translated into English someday. So far, some poems can be read in magazines like Poetry Wales. Wales seems like a good place to start: a country that lives daily translating from one language to another."

And are there English translations of his other novels in the pipeline?

"What a wonderful question for my gentle English publishers! I'm curious too. I hope they'll to keep publishing a few more books, before kicking my ass. If they tell you something about it, please let me know."

In the three years since Traveller of the Century was published in Spanish, Neuman has been busy on new projects, including a fifth novel.

"I'm working on some poems (I'm failing with some poems); and I've just finished a new (and, thank God, briefer) novel that works with some very personal materials, and tells a story about how illness influences our sexual lives and our ways of reading."

There's surely enough detail in that short description to make his English publishers sit up and take notice.

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Traveller of the Century is published in English by Pushkin Press (UK) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA).

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and Literary Editor of The Drawbridge.

(Interview originally published in Untitled books, issue 44, May 2012)
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