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Traveler of the Century
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2015 Book Discussions > Traveler of the Century - I: The Light Here is Ancient (February 2015)

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Terry Pearce This is for comment about the first part of the book...

Hans arrives in Wandenburg, checks in at the inn, and meets the organ grinder and other local notables. He makes the acquaintance of Herr Gottleib and his daughter, Sophie (who he is most impressed with, but is, he learns, engaged), and begins to attend her salon, meeting Professor Mietter, Alvaro, the Levins and Frau Pietzine, and discussing politics and philosophy. Hans begins to meet Sophie outside of the salon, his group of friends at the organ grinder's cave begins to grow, and Sophie's fiance, the rich and powerful Rudi Wilderhaus, finally makes his appearance.

Terry Pearce Some questions. Answer whichever you like, or ask your own.

The Salon

How do feel about the way that issues (trade, European politics and history, revolution) are discussed at the salon? How do their ideas compare with your understanding of the topics they discuss?

How do you see the power dynamics in the Salon? How are they portrayed? What impact does Rudi's late arrival on the scene have?

The Cave and the Organ Grinder

What impact does it have that the Organ Grinder is never named? Why do you think Neuman does this?

Discussions in the cave, in contrast to the salon, revolve mainly around ideas of travelling and of home (for example, on p135 [paperback], they talk about different words in different languages for concepts of himesickness and joy in being home). How do you feel those discussions relate to the theme of the book overall, and to Hans as its main character?


Where do you think Hans' infatuation with Sophie is headed? Will she marry Rudi?

How do you feel about the way these early stages of infatuation are portrayed?


The book is written in an unusual style, not modern at all but more in tune with the times in which it is set. How well do you think this works?

message 3: by Peter (last edited Feb 04, 2015 09:29PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments As you say, the style isn't really modern -- I'm reminded of the (by modern standards) leisurely pace of the more respectable sort of Victorian novel. There's something about reading this book that feels like floating down a slow moving river of words on a raft. You basically know where you're going, but you have no idea how long it's going to take or exactly what route you're going to take to get there.

message 4: by Zulfiya (last edited Feb 04, 2015 09:11PM) (new) - added it

Zulfiya (ztrotter) | 397 comments I have not finished the first part yet, and as Peter said, the pace is quite slow. It also reminds me of the earlier literary fiction, and I assume it is deliberate in this novel. Occasionally, it sounds and reads like a novel of ideas/a philosophical novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (the philosophical debates and the battle of words) and a novel of fictional travelogue similar to the ones written by Defoe, Smollett, and Swift.

I wonder whether the name 'Wandernburg' is symbolic. After all, all is not what it seems and changes forms, shapes and directions. It wanders, simply speaking, so does Hans.

Marc (monkeelino) | 2640 comments Mod
I'm around pg. 130 (so not quite finished the first part) and I'm seeing this book more and more as a look at how we relate to the world. The cave discussions seem about dealing with the kind of restlessness of the human spirit--can that be satisfied by taking root and developing a deep long understanding of a single place (or very few places) or does it require movement and encountering the new? Or is this whole thing a false dichotomy when places themselves change just as much as people do? Whereas the salon discussions seem to center more around how the individual relates to culture and group identity--what does it mean to be a nation? What do the boundaries (both geographically and psychologically) mean (how do they change, how do they effect the people, etc., etc.)? And how much are any one character's ideas or answers to these questions impacted upon what they believe vs. what they wish to present socially (either to maintain standing, impress the opposite sex, or simply to meet social expectations)?

Zulfiya, I definitely think the "Wander" in Wandernburg is symbolic!

I'm having trouble describing the style. Like Peter says, it has a floating quality to it... There's kind of a whimsical feel, almost like a fable or myth is being spun before your eyes. I don't think those are the right terms to describe it...

Xan  Shadowflutter (shadowflutter) | 56 comments I love this book — the prose, the descriptions, the ideas — it’s a feast, and it’s having quite an effect on how I view things, especially things I usually take for granted.

There are mild spoilers here, but my understanding is this is the thread to discuss them.

As others have said, this book is about time and place. At the beginning we are introduced to the mystery that is Wander n berg. The thickness of the wall surrounding the city warns of how hard it will be to leave. Traders peddle their wares in whispers and haggle in hushed tones. Time moves unevenly, and the innkeeper’s name is Zeit, German for “time.” Hans’ first day in town passes inexplicably fast causing him to miss his coach.

Time and Place:

Han’s travels then returns to what he loves. The organ grinder (O.G.) stays put to stay close to what he loves. Hans and the O.G. ask each other, If you stay in one place, do you see that the things that matter change, or do you get accustomed to them and fail to see the subtlety of change? Maybe this book isn’t just about time and place, but about perception — looking and seeing as opposed to looking but not seeing. Hans’ needs the aid of travel and return to see the changes; the O.G. needs no such aid.

Hans says you can’t go back even when you go back because everything changes with time. But that can be a good thing, because if everything changes, then when you meet someone, it is only for than one time making the meeting intimate. On the other hand, the organ grinder stays put and sees changes from one day to the next. Compare Hans and O.G. to Reichardt, who also stays put, but rather than seeing change notices everything is diminished with the familiarity of time.

Hans notices change through absence and elapsed time. O.G. notices change by staying put and really seeing. Hans notices the results of change, while O.G. notices change in the making. Reichardt seems to represent most people, those who look but don’t see, blinded by familiarity unable to see the wonder of change.

O.G. also points out that nostalgia is a type of travel. I had never thought of nostalgia in this way before, but it is certainly a form of time travel, isn’t it?

Then there is this little exchange between O.G. and Hans about (I think) the wind:

Hans: “What captivity, what weakness.”
O’G. “What peace, what repose.”

Two ways of looking at something. Is this pessimism versus optimism, or is this something else? Is there a bit of Hess and Siddhartha here? Is O.G.’s view one of contentment, while Hans’ one of restlessness?

Then there is this exchange:

O.G. “Aren’t you happy here?”
Alvaro: “I never wanted to come here.
Reichardt: “So why don’t you leave?
Alvaro: “I don’t know how.

How many people really, really want to do something, but don’t know how? How many people know how to truly leave?

Are the more important discussions occurring in the salon or in the cave?

When at first we meet Sophie:

The only physical description I remember of Sophie in that first scene is her hands, long fingers, and her use of the fan. And Hans later says he can never remember her face or features. Why is that? Indeed she is never physically described, but we get a full description of her mind.

Other wonderful things:


— Town Hall — a mixture of grandeur and gypsum.

— Councillor rubbed his shoe on his trousers like a heron.

— (Perhaps my favorite) Frau Pietzine is a devotee to Father Pigherzog and gemstones from Brazil.

— Professor Mietter advances his arguments in a rigorous, impeccably orderly fashion, without his wig shifting an inch.

— (My other favorite) “Herr Gottlieb lit his pipe, and appeared to set his thoughts on fire.”


O.G.: “The less love you put into things, the more they resemble one another.”

Sophie: “[I]t seems to me that a dogged insistence on faith conceals an exaggerated need to be right.”

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2319 comments I am slowly working my way through part I. Thanks Xan for all the things you point to. I hadn't thought of the book in most of the ways you lay out but I will now! And Peter, Zulfya, and Marc, the prose does create a sense of floating or wandering and reminds me a bit of a fable. This is especially so for me in the way the town changes and the difference between day and night.

message 8: by Terry (last edited Feb 05, 2015 11:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Terry Pearce Marc, your comment about it being a false dichotomy is very interesting. Are travelling and staying put two means to the same end?

I *loved* the line about 'the less love you put into things'. In its full context, it's extremely beautiful:

'When I was young, because I was young once like you, I heard many organ grinders play, and I can assure you no two tunes ever sounded the same, even on the same instrument. That’s how it is, isn’t it? The less love you put into things the more they resemble one another. The same goes for stories, everyone knows them by heart, but when someone tells them with love, I don’t know, they seem new.'

It makes me think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the idea of caring about fixing a motorcycle being key to the quality of the work.

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2319 comments Terry wrote: "Marc, your comment about it being a false dichotomy is very interesting. Are travelling and staying put two means to the same end?

I *loved* the line about 'the less love you put into things'. In ..."

Feels like a universal to me - it is hard to keep the care/love from showing if they are there.

message 10: by Lily (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lily MacKenzie (lilyionamackenzie) I'm thinking that if the organ grinder were named, he wouldn't have the power he now has. Names connect us to something particular. Put boundaries around us. But the organ grinder seems limitless. He isn't just an inhabitant of Wandernburg but a philosopher whose ideas aren't restrained by his obedience to a particular country or ideology. He seems part of nature, more attune with what is than with what might be. As such, his world offers a welcome relief from the very heady discussions of the salon.

message 11: by [deleted user] (last edited Feb 14, 2015 07:23AM) (new)

Style: I find that I cannot read this novel on the run, at the coffeeshop, or places like that. It is best drunk seated alone at night with silence all around. Such an abrupt shift from David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks which I recently finished (and also enjoyed)!

In Andrés Neuman, I feel in the presence of a great mind.

message 12: by LindaJ^ (last edited Feb 14, 2015 07:44AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2319 comments Julie wrote: "Style: I find that I cannot read this novel on the run, at the coffeeshop, or places like that. It is best drunk seated alone at night with silence all around. Such an abrupt shift from [author:Dav..."

I agree with you Julie that this book is an abrupt shift from the Bone Clocks. I find myself, unlike with the Bone Clocks, reading it in small chunks and never for a long time. It just doesn't demand that I keep going to find out what happens next. I am perfectly contenct to just read a scene and put it down. Of course, because I find it easy to put down, it is taking me longer than usual to finish it, as other books are just more demanding! In that way, I find it like reading an Annie Dillard book.

Dr. Cat (ecospirit) | 22 comments Thanks you fellow readers for all the comments so far, it is enriching my reading of this unusual book. I agree that it is not a "page turner," instead it evokes mindfulness (something I practice inconsistently). The characters and their conversations, both in the salon and in the cave, seem "in the moment", not trying to get to a conclusion or achieve a goal, but just enjoying themselves, each other, and their intellectual ruminations (and their wine ...).

message 14: by Dr. Cat (last edited Feb 14, 2015 01:26PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dr. Cat (ecospirit) | 22 comments Question: What do you think is the role of the dog? (I've only read the first part, perhaps it will become clearer later ...)

Terry Pearce Lily, I agree about the organ grinder seeming a force of nature. He seems primal, somehow, but in a relaxed way... Like an embodiment of peace and wisdom.

Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments Maybe the organ grinder represents nature's (or at least natural) wisdom? In contrast to the learned 'wisdom' on display at Sophie's salon?

message 17: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2640 comments Mod
Interesting question, Cat. So far, the dog is the only animal character in the book. I'm not sure he signifies anything independently, but he certainly makes the Organ Grinder seem like a kinder, gentler soul. Plus, he has that great quality of dogs of being eager to embrace the moment whether it be meeting new people or enjoying some food. How did you see Franz's role?

Jessica Izaguirre (sweetji) | 120 comments Thank you everyone for your comments, it is nice to interact with everyone and read your thoughts on this lovely book, and thanks Xan for the detailed insight as well.
It was a little slow for me at the beginning as I was not used to this style, or rather I didn't expect it to be this way. Although it’s a contemporary book I feel like reading a book from the Victorian era. After I was accustomed to it I started enjoying it more.
I was interested in the conversations of this book the most, and I think the cave conversations are my favorite ones. The talks about travel vs staying in the same place are very interesting since I have felt like both Hans and the Organ Grinder at some point in my life and I can see the beauty in a changing place and going back to a place that has changed.
I really enjoyed the description of the cave and how it has such a beautiful open view. I also agree with Lily’s comment about the organ grinder being a force of nature, and I think the cave helps to reinforce this, and it does bring an escape to the Salon conversations, it gives us time to reflect on them but also relax.
I am not so taken by Sophie as Hans is yet, but I want to know how their relationship develops, although it is not the most important plot in the book for me at this moment.

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