One of the strangest books I have read—the tensions start already in the author's Spanish/German name: Andrés Neuman.
He grew up in Argentina, writes now in Spain, and at the age of 35 has produced a fat novel set in the Saxon—Prussian heart of the German nineteenth century. And: I'm reading the book in English, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. It takes me a good 50 pages to settle down into the English—books with German characters and German settings really ought to be in German, shouldn't they? Or at least in the original Spanish? See the problem?
The setting is the town of Wandernburg, and like its name it is a shifty little place, not stable on maps and even its streets are moveable.
Hans, Herr Hans Hans, arrives by coach and senses immediately that it may be a difficult place to leave, although he is an inveterate traveller (I prefer traveler) who really means to move on the next day to Dessau where an invitation from Herr Lyotard awaits him.
Okay, I get it, it's an indeterminate place of shifting postmodern significance. It is also thoroughly, substantially, and sometimes delightfully rooted in nineteenth-centure material culture and intellectual history. It's a love story. It's a story about ideas (Fichte, Goethe, Schiller, Jean Paul, Tieck, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Sophie von la Roche, Bettina von Arnim, the Schlegels, Cervantes, Calderon, Voltaire, etc. etc.). It's a story about translation. Herr Hans and Fräulein Gottlieb (Bodenlieb when she's making love with Hans) translate as feverishly as they make love—poems from the Russian, Spanish, French, and English for the publisher Brockhaus.
True to its essential (yes, essential) shiftiness, the novel is a twenty-first-century version of the twentieth-century Magic Mountain relocated on a nineteenth-century north-German plain.
Herr Hans, like Thomas Mann's Hans Castorp, arrives in a magical place he inexplicably can't leave. While the hot-cat object of Castorp's affection, Clawdia Chauchat, resides in room #7 of the sanatorium, Herr Hans Hans himself resides in room #7 of the inn in Wandernburg. And while another Thomas Mann magician bears the timely name Zeitblom, the inn's own is more simply Herr Zeit.
Neuman isn't the new Mann. He does, however, wear the mask skillfully.
A final question: once a reader has been transported to the land of shifting signifiers, on what basis can he or she complain about copy editing? Lubëck marzipan????? (p. 204). Someone from Farrar, Straus and Giroux ought to read Buddenbrooks.