(Current fiction & past quality fiction)
“Traveler of the Century” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Andrés Neuman, a writer once described by the late Roberto Bolaño as being “touched by grace,” is a deeply intellectual novel, according to the publisher, among others.
When Juan Gabriel Vásquez reviewed his friend’s novel for The Guardian he waxed poetically: “It is also a book whose subject matter calls for the open destruction of boundaries: in geography, in relationships, in language. The result is a beautiful, accomplished novel: as ambitious as it is generous, as moving as it is smart.”
Examiner found on reading the same novel that it was tedious, boring and difficult to pick up more than once – and Examiner rarely reads more than one chapter at a time.
The publisher’s promotion piece notes the novel begins like this:
“Searching for an inn, the enigmatic traveler Hans stops in a small city on the border between Saxony and Prussia. The next morning, Hans meets an old organ-grinder in the market square and immediately finds himself enmeshed in an intense debate—on identity and what it is that defines us—from which he cannot break free.
“Indefinitely stuck in Wandernburg until his debate with the organ-grinder is concluded, he begins to meet the various characters who populate the town, including a young freethinker named Sophie. Though she is engaged to be married, Sophie and Hans begin a relationship that defies contemporary mores about female sexuality and what can and cannot be said about it.
“‘Traveler of the Century’ is a deeply intellectual novel, chock-full of discussions about philosophy, history, literature, love and translation.”
It is a book that won Spain’s prestigious Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize. The Farrar, Straus and Giroux version of “Traveler of the Century” marks the U.S. English-language debut of Andrés Neuman.
Examiner notes that The Guardian’s buddy-buddy reviewer, Colombian novelist Vásquez on June 12 became the first South American writer to win the lucrative International Impac Dublin Literary Award, for “The Sound of Things Falling” (Riverhead Books). Examiner liked that novel a lot. (Examiner Aug. 1, 2013)
But sitting around gabbing endlessly in Wandernburg about this and that does not create an “intellectual novel,” whatever that is. It caters to tedium.
As to Bolaño’s blessing of Neuman as “touched by grace,” Examiner greatly admires Bolaño’s writing, but the blessing may have been premature. Bolaño has been dead for the past 11 years so his appraisal would have come before Neuman’s 26th birthday. Neuman’s first novel, “Bariloche,” was published in 1999. Yet his publishers embellish the cover of “Traveler of the Century” with Bolaño’s aging benediction in an effort to sell it. Examiner assumes the grace touch has been delayed. Neuman had previously published some poetry, so perhaps that’s what Bolaño had in mind. It certainly couldn’t have been “Bariloche,” at best a prelude in Spanish to the tedium of “Traveler.”