Last Evening in Hanoi

Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century

Just finished reading Andrés Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’s protagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe & the confluence of poetics & politics.

I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in  the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.

That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattva who dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.

By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog are impostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that is programmed to make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.

Hurdy-Gurdy Man

Rousseau’s Mind

I’m not sure if “mind” is exactly the word I’m looking for–is there a word that combines the sense of “mind” & “personality? Style, maybe. In the Confessions, Rousseau writes, “I have a passionate temperament, and lively and headstrong emotions. Yet my thoughts arise slowly and confusedly, and are never ready till too late” (113). I’ve certainly felt this way all my life and one of the things that draws me to the Confessions is the sense that I am reading about myself. Rousseau, looking back on his life, discerns traits I recognize looking back on my own life. He tells us that he can only speak fluently to a sympathetic auditor: “My heart loved to expand, provided there was another heart to listen. But dry and cold questionings, without any sign of approval or blame, gave me no confidence” (84).  Ah, so this is not my failing alone! He goes on:

But I do not suffer from this combination of quick emotion and slow thoughts only in company. I know it too when I am alone and when I am working. Ideas take shape in my head with the most incredible difficulty. They go round in slow circles and ferment, agitating me and overheating me till my heart palpitates. During this stir of emotion I can see nothing clearly, and cannot write a word; I have to wait. Insensibly all this tumult grows quiet, the chaos subsides, and everything falls into place, but slowly, and after long and confused perturbations (113).

For a long time I thought this described the mental processes of all writers, but then I met writers who said they merely transcribed what they already knew rather than having to figure things out during the actual process of writing. I suspect most poets are like me (and Rousseau), but I won’t presume to speak for fiction writers. Often, I have the sense that it is the language itself thinking through me. The main consequence of this is that it take me forever to write anything. I’m among the least prolific poets I know even though I am writing pretty much all the time. Lately, I have been able to write some extended prose–a whole conference paper!–but proset is always a grind, exactly as Rousseau describes.