Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman – review

An ambitious example of the Latin American 'total novel'

On page 145 of Andrés Neuman's Traveller of the Century, a lively debate about aesthetics is raging in a literary salon. The place is Wandernburg, which the reader won't find on a map; the time is the early 19th century, when the Napoleonic wars have recently changed the face of Europe forever and launched the continent into deep anxieties about its own identities. Professor Mietter is arguing that aesthetics are all about choice: "The French write in order to be admired," he says, "in the same way that we Germans write in order to think and the English write in order to be understood." Sophie Gottlieb – hostess of the salon, feminist avant la lettre, betrothed to one man but about to fall in love with another – begs to differ: "Surely we may also decide on the mix," she argues, "since an aesthetic is made up of concepts, abstractions, objects and anecdotes, wouldn't you agree?"

The professor might not, but the reader suspects strongly that Neuman does, for Sophie's words acutely describe this genre-bending, unpredictable and omnivorous monster of a work. Traveller of the Century is a novel of ideas, but it is also a conventional love story between conventionally unconventional people; it is a novel about history, but never just a historical novel; it is a novel about politics of the past that continuously and unashamedly comments on present politics. It is a novel about wild sex and literary translation, sometimes in the same sentence. Oh yes: it is also, finally, a murder mystery.

Hans, the traveller of the title, arrives in Wandernburg intending to spend a night before moving on to Dassau, his final destination. He soon finds that this is not your average one-night town: Wandernburg has a tricky relationship with geography, shifting ceaselessly between Prussia and Saxony, and its own cartography is no more reliable. This is a place in which the same streets never take the wanderer to the same places, making it difficult to leave. And it doesn't help that Hans and Sophie soon become clandestine lovers, meeting in Hans's room with the ostensible purpose of translating European poetry, while having some of the most graphic sex in contemporary fiction, and then feigning innocence in public in the neutral environment of the Gottlieb family's literary salon. While this goes on, a cast of secondary characters come into and out of focus: an organ grinder who lives alone in a cave; the innkeeper, a fat man by the eloquent name of Zeit who is continually making hermetic comments about, well, time; a dark figure who wears a black hat and murders women in a Jack the Ripper fashion; and the salon habitués, whose tastes and politics and religious beliefs are the subject of lengthy discussions. These pages are reminiscent of great European intellectual novels from The Magic Mountain to Those Barren Leaves, but Neuman is healthily able to fill them with irony or outright humour (a set of characters in a tavern bear the names of Rummenigge, Voeller and Klinsmann: if you're a football fan, you'll know what I'm talking about).

Traveller of the Century doesn't merely respect the reader's intelligence: it sets out to worship it. An unusual talent is required to pull this off, and Neuman has it. Perhaps the awareness of dealing with an imaginary place has made him watch his world all the more closely, and with language so vivid and new you will find yourself reading as if you were rereading: for the pleasure of detail, imagery and style (all magnificently rendered by translators Nick Caistor and Lorenza García, who had a daunting task before them). Neuman, born in Argentina but raised in Andalusia, is a poet and aphorist as well as a fiction writer, and his virtuosity in the short distances does wonderful things to the long novel: the attention he pays to one of his main characters is the same he pays to the sound of an adjective while describing the wind, or a dog's ears, or light.

In the end, and despite (or because of) its European obsessions, Traveller of the Century belongs in the quintessentially Latin American genre of the "total novel": the all-encompassing narrative bent on exploring every theme, every social milieu, every emotional possibility. I stress this because it would be both easy and wrong to look at Neuman's book in the context of "globalised fiction" – novels desperate for acceptance by everyone that end up talking about no one. No: Neuman's novel is solidly inscribed in the Argentinian tradition, advocated by Borges in a famous essay, of not being recognisably Argentinian. 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.

• Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Secret History of Costaguana is published by Bloomsbury.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The GuardianTramp

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