Though A Man: Klaus Klump is the fourth novel by Goncalo M Tavares in the Kingdom Cycle to be published by Dalkey Archive Press, it is in fact the first in the sequence. (Those devotees of crime fiction in translation will recognise the inconvenience of works appearing out of order). I first encountered Tavares last year via The Neighbourhood – an ongoing (as far as I know) series of stories set in an imaginary writers’ quarter populated by such authors as Italo Calvino, Paul Valery and Robert Walser. The writers do not interact with each other (it’s not a soap opera) but each have a book of very short stories – one might even say fragments – devoted to them. These stories play on the ideas and style of the writers. A Man: Klaus Klump (translated by Rhett McNeil), however, is a much less playful work; while it retains the sharp wit of The Neighbourhood, it exercises it in a devastating critique of war.
The novel opens as Klump’s country is occupied. The opening lines portray the fatalistic tone of many of its aphoristic paragraphs:
“A country’s flag is a helicopter; gasoline is necessary to keep the flag aloft; the flag isn‘t made of fabric but of metal…”
While there is still humour to be found in the expression of ideas, it is a very bleak humour indeed:
“Tanks were entering the city. Military music was entering the city and serene music went into hiding throughout the city. Someone out in the street was wildly attempting to sell newspapers. Tanks were coming into the city, the news rushed into the paper.”
Klump is an editor with an ambition to publish books. He is particularly unsuited to war: early on he is seen kissing the boot of a soldier to avoid having his glasses broken. Though his family are rich, he has distanced himself from them to devote himself to publishing. He lives with his lover, Johana, and her mother.
“No one loves a coward, which merely means that while you’re in love with someone, you’re unable to see their cowardice.”
When Klump is out, a group of soldiers appear and Johana is raped. This is the turning point in the novel which will change the destiny of both Klump and Johana: soon Klump has left for the forest to join the resistance, and Johana begins a new life as a collaborator, becoming the mistress of the officer who raped her. The narrative gaps and the matter of fact tone in which information is presented leave it up to the reader to decide if this is an example of opportunism or powerlessness. Johana isn’t the only female character to use her sexuality to accommodate the enemy; when Klump spends the night with Herthe, he wakens to find himself surrounded by soldiers:
“And not just her garden plot: Herthe had living, fully intact parents by her side. And Herthe still had a twelve year old brother, living, healthy, intact, well-treated and well-received by the soldiers.”
The brother is a nice touch, making condemnation of Herthe difficult (particularly through the clever use of the word ‘intact’). In fact, it becomes difficult to condemn anyone as no-one escapes the brutalisation of the war, and any suggestion that Klump is transforming from a coward to a hero Hollywood-style is soon quashed.
A Man: Klaus Klump is a short book (just under 100 pages) but it packs a punch. Much longer works have failed to convey the way in which war corrupts the character so successfully. The final chapter is a masterpiece of cynicism and irony. Yet, despite its fatalistic tone, it’s also a novel which forces the reader to look at things in a new way simply through its use of language. I found it horrifying and captivating in equal measure.