Monday 16 April 2012

Darling, you've got to let me know...

While most of the books which made it onto the shortlist of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize are relatively slender works, several of the longlisted titles (not least the bookshelf-threatening Parallel Stories) were longer, injury-inducing tomes.  Sadly for those of you with physical frailties, next year may have more of the same - that is, if today's book is anything to go by ( I was lucky enough to get a review e-copy from the publisher though!).  Fans of translated fiction should start exercising those arm and neck muscles...

Andrés Neuman's Traveller of the Century (Pushkin Press), translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, is another wonderful example of fiction in translation.  The novel, running to around 600 pages, introduces us to Hans, a young translator who spends the night in a town somewhere in central Germany.  Originally planning to stay in Wandernburg for only one night, Hans somehow allows his departure to be delayed time and time again, seemingly unable to leave the strange, slightly-confusing town.

The longer he stays, the more people he comes to know, and the harder it is to motivate himself to leave.  Through his new friend Álvaro, a Spanish expatriate, he is invited to attend a literary salon, and it is here that he meets the hostess, Sophie Gottlieb, a lover of poetry and a beauty of marriageable age.  A perfect match, you might think: were it not for the handsome Rudi von Wilderhouse - Sophie's fiancé...

While the relationship between Hans and Sophie is at the heart of Traveller of the Century, there is a lot more to it than that.  Besides the added intrigue of the hunt for a sexual predator lurking in the streets of Wandernburg, an important chunk of the novel is spent at the Gottlieb's literary salon each Friday, where Hans and Álvaro take on the formidable intellect of Professor Mietter.  In the midst of a small group of selected citizens, our friends debate topics of literature and philosophy, war and peace, government and commerce, in a way which seems strangely modern and familiar.  For those whose eyes glaze over at the mention of philosophy though, there is always the mute, passionate subtext of Hans' and Sophie's attraction to be diverted by.

One of the more intriguing characters is the city itself, as it is not named Wandernburg for nothing.  In the introduction, it is described as having no fixed boundaries, shifting between Saxony and Prussia (both politically and physically!), but there is much more to the city's elusive nature.  When Hans walks around the city streets, he invariably finds himself lost, shops, inns and streets popping up where least expected.  Try as he might, the young translator is unable to take the same route twice -which must be a metaphor of some sort, surely? ;)

The name Kafka is never far from the reader's mind during the first pages of the novel, but the connection with the Latin American magical realism movement is the overriding feeling you have the longer the story goes on.  However you want to describe it, the fact is that Hans feels a strange sort of attraction to the town:
"I don't know what it is about this city,... it's as if it won't let me leave." p.78

If it all seems a bit too high-brow though, rest assured that the novel is very readable and often funny.  From the Thompson-Twins-inspired father-and-son detective duo of Lieutenant Gluck and Lieutenant Gluck ("Dad...", "Call me Lieutenant.") , to the cameo appearance of two businessmen in a bar (showing the author's love of football...), Neuman cleverly breaks up the deeper passages with some lighter moments.  When Hans and Álvaro are drinking (which they, and many others, frequently do), Hans quips in Wildean fashion:
"What time is it? What! said Álavaro astonished.  Do you mean to tell me you don't wear a watch?  The fact is, I don't see any point in watches, said Hans, they never give me the time I want." p.119

In the end though, we always return to Hans and Sophie, star-crossed lovers caught in an impossible situation.  The literary salon discusses Goethe's Young Werther at one point, a parallel which is not lost on the reader (although in the hands of a Latin writer, events are always likely to end up differently...).  The admirable Sophie, a wonderfully drawn-out character, is torn between her higher and base instincts, her duties and desires.  This is even foreshadowed in her name: while her father's family name is Gottlieb, indicating love of God, her mother's maiden name was Bodenlieb, a slightly more earthy kind of desire...

As the year passes by, Hans becomes increasingly attached to Sophie, despite being unlikely to ever win her.  The traveller has become rooted to the spot, a situation which both pleases and repels him.  In the end, he has a decision to make, and (unlike in the song) his lady love is not going to make the decision for him.  It's up to Hans to decide - should he stay or should he go...

All in all, an excellent book, and one which could easily jostle for position with all the fine translated fiction I've been reading recently.  However, there is one more angle I'd like to look at, and that is the focus on translation.  Hans is a literary translator, converting poetry from several European languages into new German versions, and Caistor and Garcia, the translators of Traveller of the Century, must have had a lot of fun with the poems Hans had to work with.  I thought it was an excellent translation, a smooth fluent read, and it was extremely entertaining to see the process of translation rendered within a novel.  Perhaps a passage from the text best describes the effect a good translation can have on a work of art:
"But if it is well done, if the job of interpretation gives the right result, the text may even be improved, or at least become another poem as worthy as its predecessor.  And I would go further - I think it is the translator's duty to offer the reader an authentic poem in his own language precisely in order to remain faithful to the poetic nature of the original." p.351
And so say all of us :)