Through a glass darkly

“Traveler of the Century” by Andr e s Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $30)

In a room in an inn in an imaginary city in a 19th-century novel written by a 21st-century author, a solitary traveler peers at an ornately framed watercolor. When the traveler takes down the painting for a closer look, he discovers, to his delight, a small mirror on the back. Every morning thereafter, he uses the mirror to shave by, then returns the painting to its proper place of adornment on the wall of his room.

Although introduced as a telling detail in “Traveler of the Century,” Andres Neuman’s highly honored homage to the 19th-century European novel, that painting-cum-mirror-cum-painting turns out to be the master metaphor of the book.

Or does it?

The uncertainty principle –– a discovery of 20th-century physics, you may recall –– permeates Neuman’s work the way watercolor seeps into the fiber of a freshly pressed sheet of paper.

Indeed, “Traveler of the Century” contains “a certain tremor of unreality,” according to one of the judges who awarded the novel Spain’s prestigious Alfaguara Prize in 2009. “It’s a post-modern novel in which there’s an effort to write a modern-day classic novel.”

If that weren’t pedigree enough, Neuman, the 35-year-old, uncannily prolific Wunderkind of Spanish letters, gives us another clue about his first work to be translated into English: “My intention was to recreate the 19th-century novel, which I adore, from a contemporary point of view and state of language.”

Then, in the novel itself, Hans, the solo traveler eyeing the painting in the room in the inn in the city of Wandernburg, where he has just arrived, declares that the new historical fiction of Walter Scott –– in vogue in Restoration-era Germany in the 1840s –– must treat the past as a “laboratory in which to analyze the present.”

Thus, we are not so subtly led to believe that the mirror on the painting reflects the concerns and character of the 21st century. The only trouble is, there are so many faces crowding into the little sphere of glass that we can’t be sure of what we’re seeing.

Mirror images

First up looms the profile of Wandernburg (its name a pun on travel), lying indeterminately on the border of Saxony in Prussia, the city where Hans arrives one dark and chilly night by carriage, en route from Berlin to Dessau. His plan is to stay only one night in the provinces. But once he secures a room at the inn run by Herr Zeit (Mr. Time), he finds that he curiously cannot leave, even though he cannot say precisely where he is:

“It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact location of Wandernburg on any map, because it has changed places all the time. It shifts so much between regions it has become all but invisible.”

On the city streets, things are no better. Hans wanders in a kind of Kafkaesque labyrinth: He “had the strange feeling that the city’s layout somehow shifted while everyone was asleep. How could he lose his bearings so completely? It was beyond him.”

But just when we start to gain our bearings on the enigmatic ways of Wandernburg, Hans abruptly pushes the city out of sight, and fills the mirror with his face.

A mysterious outsider, determined to sport his beret in inappropriate venues, he “journeyed from place to place, stopping off at unfamiliar destinations to discover what they were like, then moving on when he grew bored, felt the urge to travel again or found something better to do elsewhere.”

He soon bumps into a nameless old organ-grinder, whose mechanical mazurkas cast a strange spell on the traveler: “When the organ-grinder began to play, something touched the edge of something. When he heard the barrel organ’s metallic past, Hans sensed that someone else, some past self, was trembling inside him.”

This sense of self, tenuous and wobbly, springs to life at the sight of the third face crowding into our mirror: Sophie Gottlieb, the lovely, sophisticated, free-thinking daughter of one of the burghers of Wandernburg.

For amusement, Sophie stages elaborate parlor conversations in her father’s palatial home, populating the rooms with a chorus of idiosyncratic characters: Rudi Wilderhaus, her boorish but wealthy fiance; Professor Mietter, an imperious philologist and newspaper columnist; Herr Levin, a Jewish merchant “with a penchant for theosophy”; and Hans, erstwhile student of philosophy.

Sophie controls the pace of the conversations –– on nationalism, literature, economics, women’s rights, trade unions and a host of other topics –– by coyly waving her fan at her favored speaker or defiantly snapping it shut.

Not only is Hans captivated by her grace and beauty, but he soon discovers that they share an interest in 19th-century German philosophy and English Romantic poetry, which they wind up translating together, effortlessly slipping from the bedroom sheets to the secretarial sheaves, and back again.

Romancing the word

Their romance, of course, presents the perfect pretzel twist of a plot that would propel any other 19th-century novel toward its tragic denouement. But, in Neuman’s tale, the pre-eminence of talk derails all action.

True, a sinister figure lurks in the background –– a perfunctory nod to melodrama perhaps –– but the enlightened self-interest of Sophie’s garrulous parlor games takes center stage for most of the book’s 500-plus pages.

We need have no doubt, then, that ideas –– and long, involved monologues about them –– captivate Neuman; this is the heart of the 19th-century novel he adores.

But does his miniature mirror really reflect today’s society? Consider:

Instead of steering through high-brow conversations on philosophy and art, we dog-paddle in an endless sea of sound bites. Instead of translating European poetry to clandestine lovers, we strain to turn texting into standard English. And instead of celebrating the grand union of intellect and passion that infatuated the Romantics, we settle for the instant gratification of a credit-card consumerism.

In the end, what we see in the mirror is what we bring to it. And if that happens to be a love of the 19th-century European novel –– as Neuman professes –– then we’ll find reflected in the silvered circle stacks and stacks of titles we should be reading or re-reading now: Dickens, Tolstoy and Flaubert; Hardy, Dostoevsky and Stendhal; Eliot, Balzac and Austen –– and more.

Or we can simply turn the painting over, ignoring the mirror altogether, and admire Neuman’s portrait of an epoch, the fine replica created by his copyist’s hand.

If so, we will also have to lament its lack of substance. For even with its highly polished, ornamental frame of ideas, Neuman’s watercolor is doomed to never spread beyond the two dimensions of the pretty paper it is painted on. And there’s nothing uncertain about that.