Thursday, August 30, 2012

Philosophical Traveler

Traveler of the Century: A Novel
Traveler of the Century: A Novel 

"Silence radiates, like concentric rings, from the centre of the market square towards the yellowish gloomy alleyways, from the capacious tip of the Tower of the Wind to the sloping contours of St. Nicholas's Church, from the high doors to the railings round the graveyard, from the worn cobblestones to the dormant stench of the fields manured for spring, and beyond.
In Wandernberg a sandy moon turns full, a moon caught unawares, a moon with nowhere." (p 146)

This new novel by Andres Neuman, Traveler of the Century, is the type of book I enjoy -- a novel of ideas. But in this case it is also a love story of sorts, and the author comments on history and politics in addition to his decided interest in philosophy. In other words it is what any good novel of ideas should be, a long book that is both challenging and imaginative. While the American edition from Farrar, Straus and Giroux has a Picasso on the dust jacket, the story is set in the 19th century. The exact period is purposely left undefined - this is not an historical novel and the Picasso is one of his works inspired by Velasquez which does not help explain the choice.
The main character is an itinerant translator named Hans. Readers who are familiar with German literature will recognize him as an everyman and he almost immediately assumes a role that reminds one of the similar role taken by Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain.
Hans arrives in Wandernburg, an unremarkable hamlet on the border of Prussia and Saxony. He intends only to pass through, but fortune detains him: First he befriends an old street musician, and then he falls in love with Sophie, an intellectually voracious young woman sadly affianced to the pampered scion of Wandernburg's wealthiest family. The story unfolds as a one whose themes embody both mind and flesh; Hans and Sophie love each other for their imperfect yet sensual flesh and for the liberty and equality of their fraternal thoughts. Reading texts in various languages as they plan an anthology of European poetry, lying together in bed, they practice translation as an erotic art and lovemaking as an intellectual pursuit. This is what intrigued me - the story of these passionate readers. I was transported into Neuman's imaginary world.
The meat of the story for those who are interested in ideas is demonstrated in scenes like the discussion between Hans and Professor Mietter (reminiscent of Mann's Settembrini in discussions with young Castorp) about the views of Kant and Fichte on Nationhood.
"A country ought not to ask what it is, but when and why." said Hans. "Professor Mietter responded by comparing Kant and Fichte's ideas of nationhood in order to show that, rather than betraying Kant, Fichte had taken his arguments a step further. Hans said that in contrast to his views on Fichte, he liked Kant better when he spoke of countries rather than individuals. Every society, said Hans, needs order, and Kant proposes a very intelligent one. Yet every citizen needs a measure of chaos, which Kant refuses." (p 95)
While Hans and the Professor's discussion of the ideas of Kant and Fichte continued I was reminded of my own recent reading of Kant's essay on Perpetual Peace in which he is considered to have foreshadowed many of the ideas that have come to form the democratic peace theory, one of the main controversies in political science. Episodes like this are grist for the mill of those who enjoy philosophical literature. But also interesting are the characters in Neuman's novel. In the scene from which I quoted Sophie is in the background, full of her own ideas, and feeling "the urge to behave in and unladylike way" by entering the fray herself at the risk of taking sides between her lover and the respected professor.
Traveller of the Century doesn't merely challenge the reader's intelligence; it rewards it with literary depth and beauty. I was not familiar with the author but in this novel he demonstrated the talent is required to create an accomplished vision that embodies interesting ideas and a great story.

Traveler of the Century by Andres Neuman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012 (2009)

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