Jorge Volpi by Martin Solares

BOMB 86 Winter 2004
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Jorge Volpi. Photo by Vesta Mónica Herrerías. Courtesy of Martín Solares and Vesta Mónica Herrerías.

Far from the magic realism of conventional Latin American narrative, Jorge Volpi’s novel In Search of Klingsor ( En busca de Klingsor; Seix Barral, 1999) relates a historical fiction set in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and in postwar Germany under the Allied occupation. The novel’s protagonist, a brilliant young physicist named Francis P. Bacon, is sent by the US government to search for Hitler’s scientific adviser (or advisers), code-named Klingsor, who assisted Hitler in the race to build the atomic bomb. In designing his plot and characters, Volpi studied scientific models that attempt to explain the mysteries of the universe: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Gödel’s theory of incompleteness, Einstein’s theory of relativity. Exhaustive research enabled the author to bring these actual scientists to life and involve them in the intimate revelations of an imaginary colleague: the cryptic suspect Professor Gustav Links, a physicist obsessed with the infinite. In Volpi’s hands, the Germans who examine the secrets of the atom behave like alchemist devotees searching for the philosopher’s stone, and little by little, with great suspense, a net of intrigue develops, entwining the foremost minds of the twentieth century—Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinger, Werner Heisenber, John Von Neumann—in a thriller that involves Germany and the United States before, during, and after World War II.

In Search of Klingsor has been translated into 19 languages. Volpi has written five other novels: about the death of Jorge Cuesta, one of the greatest Mexican intellectuals of the 20th century (In Spite of the Dark Silence [A pesar del oscuro silencio]) about perverse millennial games (The Game of the Apocalypse [El juego del apocalipsis]); about a political conspiracy ( The Peace of Tombs [La paz de los sepulcros]). His new novel, The End of Madness (El fin de la locura), is the second volume of his trilogy about the 20th century, which began with KlingsorThe End of Madness, which has just been translated into French, examines the development of revolutionary utopia from the May ’68 demonstrations in Paris to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro are some of the personalities who fill its pages.

Volpi lives in Paris, where he is director of the Mexican Cultural Center. He is currently working on a book about the Zapatista movement, and he is starting the research for the third novel in the Klingsor trilogy.

Martin Solares The fact that a Latin American author would write about the intrigue surrounding the scientists who built the atomic bomb took many readers by surprise. How did In Search of Klingsor come to you?

Jorge Volpi It has always seemed natural for me to write about any subject. I’ve been obsessed with science since I was a kid; I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos programs in awe. I always wanted to write a book about science. My intention was to live the life of a physicist, something I gave up in order to devote myself to literature. In 1996, I began a long research project that took nearly three years. I read hundreds of science histories, scientist biographies, manuals and textbook, and then started Klingsor, in Spain, while I was working on a PhD in philology at the University of Salamanca, which allowed me a lot of free time. I remember those years as some of the happiest in my life. I dedicated myself to reading science books until I finally encountered the period that most interested me for the purpose of writing a novel. It was amazing to discover that theories of relativity, quantum mechanics and the incompleteness of mathematics—that is, the most momentous shifts in scientific thought in our era—occurred in the first half of the 20th century, mostly in Germany, during a period of increasingly grave political convulsion leading up to the advent of Nazism. It seemed clear to me that my novel should be a brief history of science during the period from the end of World War I to the end of World War II, a portrait of the change in mentality forming in the heat of political events.

MS What was the most difficult thing about your research? Learning German?

JV Probably. I didn’t intend to become a great expert on 20th-century German science; I wanted to research all the essential elements in order to write a book about it.

MS What would you say was the original idea for the novel, the image around which everything else was structured?

JV The initial project was to sketch a portrait of the scientific world and its connections to other aspects of reality. The first story that intrigued me was the romantic quadrangle formed by the two scientists, Gustav [Links] and Heini [Heinrich von Lutz], and their wives at the dawning of the Second World War. This love story seemed like the perfect pretext, not only to symbolize the emotional crisis of the period but also to analyze the characters’ behavior as if they were variations in a scientific structure. Each character acted like a particle in movement, and the narrator, Links, could not help but make constant comparisons between what was occurring in the world of science and what was happening in his own love life.

Of course, the compelling thing about World War II is its mythic resonance. It’s not difficult to see Hitler and the Nazis as the incarnation of absolute evil. This was also part of the reason that the structure of the novel is based on the myth of the Holy Grail. For me it was an obvious choice to use that German story, which has to do with looking for salvation, as a reverse metaphor for what occurred with the Nazi scientists in Germany. As opposed to the knights of the Grail, the members of the German atomic energy team looked for an all-powerful weapon that by itself would change the course of the war, a type of negative Grail, something that, instead of granting them salvation, was to condemn them forever.

MS Your novel has been described as a small encyclopedia of 20th-century German science, in which many of the scientists have criminal profiles. You explore the nature of evil with these characters. How did it manifest itself through or for these scientists?

JV Because I wanted the novel to be read not only as a thriller but also as a brief history of physics and mathematics during the first half of the 20th century, I tried to include biographical profiles of some of the most important scientists of the time: Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Planck, Bohr. The challenge was to simultaneously portray the characters as flesh and bone, showing their weaknesses, strengths and eccentricities while also offering a synthesis of their scientific thought, and not let them become an impediment to the resolution of the plot. In the case of some characters, especially with the German scientists who decided to collaborate with Hitler, such as Johannes Stark, casting them with a perceptible shadow of evil was nearly unavoidable.

MS How did you access the private life of Albert Einstein and represent it with such warmth?

JV With all of the real characters, I tried to avoid clichés and instead make them be authentic fictional characters, focusing on details that seemed trivial and trying to connect them metaphorically to their theories. It was the only way to give life to the physicists that would not seem at all like the stereotypes that people have of them. The figure of Einstein presented particular difficulties, not only because he is better known, but because he had already left Germany by the start of the war. In reality Francis Bacon worked with Von Neumann, and for him, Einstein was a kind of myth, a constant presence that he tries to follow, but who is as elusive as his own science.

MS Your protagonist, US Army lieutenant Francis P. Bacon, is obsessed with Einstein and follows him for weeks on his afternoon walks through the park; finally Einstein turns and speaks to him. You could say that there’s something magical about that moment. What did it take to get that effect?

JV That scene with Einstein is one of my favorites, along with another, the one readers most frequently mention: the moment when Bacon’s fiancé, Elizabeth, interrupts Gödel’s conference and accuses Bacon of cheating on her with another woman. I love the moment when Gödel begins to cry. The incident reminds him of his own passion. I don’t know how these effects are achieved; perhaps it has to do with the somewhat random combination of different sentiments found in a single action. It’s very interesting: many readers in various parts of the world have spoken to me with great enthusiasm about this scene, and it’s even more curious for me because I hadn’t originally planned to include it in the book. This synthesis that I was speaking of before, the order that is created out of chaos, was an endpoint I arrived at naturally, and it was there that the main themes of the book crystallized—science, of course, but also love and irrationality.

MS Do you have a theory about how characters are constructed? What do you usually do to get them going?

JV In general, I’m used to making complete sketches of my characters before I start to write a novel. Later they always change a lot, but I try to know them and to discover a few determining features, and some minuscule ones as well, that describe them in a single stroke. A little like what we retain when we meet a person in real life.

MS Along with history, mystery is the other theme that has interested you since In Spite of the Dark Silence and The Peace of Tombs. In the first you explored the internal mystery of the life of Jorge Cuesta, and in the second you wrote a story (which ended up being prescient) about Mexican political intrigue, but it seems that you always circle around a mystery. As Maurice Blanchot said in The Space of Literature, “The writer never knows whether the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he starts over or destroys in another.” To what do you attribute the fact that history and mystery have such presence in your novels?

JV This seems like psychoanalysis. Let me think. When I was 13, I decided that I would be a historian, a medievalist. I even wrote my first “text” at that time: the prologue to an immense, and impossible, History of the Middle Ages. But beyond that adolescent absurdity, history has always been one of my passions, and I have utilized it countless times in my fiction, beginning with my first two novels. For me, the novel is a way to investigate the world that is as valid as science or history, and it possesses a tool that the others don’t: imagination.

As for mystery, it was clear to me that the detective as well as the scientist in In Search of Klingsor carry out similar tasks: both attempt to untangle a mystery—the detective investigates a criminal, the scientist studies the universe—and in order to do so they each set out on a quest dominated by clues, hypotheses and ideas. If Klingsor became a thriller, it’s because of this natural connection to the mysteries of the universe.

MS I would like you to reveal the secret form of your book. Klingsor combines elements of the crime novel, the bildungsroman, and tales of espionage. You took the opportunity to connect it all: myth, philosophy, history, the legend of the Holy Grail, and, above all, the metaphors that scientists have used to explain reality.

JV Exactly. From the start, I wanted the novel to have many possible readings, to not be limited to just one. The structure and subject were determined by this combination of genres and discourses. Like most readers, I didn’t have deep scientific knowledge when I began Klingsor, but as I went on I could understand and marvel at contemporary scientific wisdom. I wanted the reader to enjoy the great scientific discoveries just like I did. I also wanted to write a novel that would sketch the end of the utopia of scientific progress, and I intended each of Klingsor’s three parts to formally reflect major changes in the paradigm of scientific knowledge. So the first part was written as an 18th-century novel, with the idea that everything that it relates is the absolute truth. The second part, on the other hand, marks the beginning of a move toward the predominance of chance; and the last section is in fact a series of superimposed possible endings that try to reproduce the chance world of quantum mechanics.

MS Did theories of the uncertainty principle, chance and the theory of relativity actually help you construct your characters?

JV From the beginning of the project I had the idea that, from the metaphoric point of view, Heisenberg’s theory of uncertainty and Gödel’s theory of incompleteness would become the centers of the story and of the novel’s structural framework. Heisenberg’s idea that the observer modifies the reality observed applies when the reader is charged with modifying the novelistic reality, and uncertainty and chance become themes that ultimately determine the behavior of my characters. Although, this does not imply a lessening of their psychological depth.

MS Bacon is an innocent man at the mercy of dangerous characters. How would you define him?

JV Like Wagner’s Parsifal, Bacon is someone who is simultaneously enlightened and naive or, like the legend says, an innocent. His desire to find absolute truth—and absolute love—leads him to be manipulated by larger forces. In his quest for Klingsor, our protagonist runs the risk of succumbing to darkness.

MS A year ago, when you talked with the members of the Paris Literary Workshop, you said, “You can investigate the human mind or heart through the novel and that would be enough, but there are many other novels that don’t attempt this and therefore fail to uphold the commitment between the writer and literature.” Do you have a literary ethics? In your judgment, on what should the writer’s commitment be based?

JV On the one hand, the writer’s commitment is fundamentally to his own work; he should be faithful to his aesthetic and his decisions without worrying about issues that don’t pertain to literature. That’s fundamental. But then each writer can also choose a possible commitment to reality.

I respect those writers who decide to maintain only their commitment to their work, but I believe that intellectuals can also contribute to the enrichment of a dialogue about public interests, and therefore their commitment extends to reality—not that they become a guide to society, but because of their particular work, they can express their ideas and help model the opinion of others.

MS In Otras Inquisiciones (1937–1952), Jorge Luis Borges said that a poorly constructed character can subtract verisimilitude from the rest of the novel. Recently, when we spoke about Klingsor in the Paris Literary Workshop, you confessed that in order for Bacon to be credible you had to change not only his identity, but his place of birth. As a reader of Borges, I would like to know about the transformation of this originally Mexican character into an American.

JV In the beginning, I thought that the central character of Klingsor could be a young Mexican who studied at Princeton, the son of a general exiled during the Mexican Revolution. But later I realized how absurd it was to have a Mexican hunting Nazis in Germany, so I decided to make him American. I never thought about writing a novel in which there was nothing Mexican; I simply wanted to tell this story, and in this story a Mexican protagonist would not have been believable.

MS You have been accused of being “not very Latin American” and of turning your back on magic realism. What is your relation to the grand Latin American novels? Which ones interest you?

JV I feel very Latin American, which made it absolutely natural for me to write a novel in which Latin America doesn’t appear at all. There were some critics who denounced its foreignness, but for me it was always normal to admire novels such as Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann or The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil along with Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa, and Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Literature has never recognized the restrictive borders of the actual world. We belong to multiple traditions, and that does not make us any less Latin American or Mexican.

MS You have known Carlos Fuentes for years. What do you think of him?

JV Honestly, I think that I decided to become a writer after reading Terra Nostra. That book opened my eyes to a completely new world in which a Mexican writer could re-create world history. Since then, I have continued reading him and only later, due to his generous speaking out in favor of In Search of Klingsor, did I have the opportunity to establish a relationship with him based on friendship, trust and admiration. It’s because of this that I am now working in France on a monograph about Fuentes, a book that will bring together many unpublished texts, some of his correspondence and criticism from many scholars and writers.

MS You lived in Salamanca at the same time as Ignacio Padilla, who was working on Amphitryon [recently published in English as Shadow Without a Name, also a novel about Germany. Did you influence each other’s ideas? Did you help each other out?

JV Not in a conscious way. I began to write Klingsor in 1996, a few years before Nacho began Amphitryon, with the plan to write a book on science. I didn’t know then that my novel would take place in Nazi Germany. While I was in Salamanca, talks and discussions with Nacho about what each one of us was writing became daily occurrences, and the thematic coincidences came out naturally because of our passion for certain places and shared histories.

MS In 1994 you became part of the group Crack, with Eloy Urroz, Padilla and Pedro Ángel Palou. At first you complained of the generation of writers immediately before yours, and you proclaimed your search for another way to write. Almost ten years after the Crack Manifesto was made public in the Centro Cultural San Angel, in Mexico City, do you and your friends maintain some collective work plan, some type of generational project?

JV Beyond the literary friendship that continues to be very solid, yes, we have collective projects in the inkwell: a book of two short novels, one by Eloy Urroz, the other, mine, is being republished now in Spain, and perhaps in the future we will continue with that type of venture. The book will be called Two Short and Only Slightly Edifying Novels (Dos novelitas pocas edificantes), and in truth it brings together two mirror novels that Urroz and I published separately in 1997. They are both parodies of sentimental novels dealing with the theme of love triangles.

MS Cabrera Infante thought that Klingsor was a model example of the fusion of science and literature. But you never studied physics. How were you able to bring the reader to enjoy the models that science has created to explain the universe?

JV Literary fiction allows me to explore the world of forms in a way that no other discipline allows. It permits me to use any discourse as a metaphor to explain the behavior of my characters. Generally, scientists have been very drawn to the novel, although some of them have felt uncomfortable about the role assigned to characters like Heisenberg, who in addition to being one of the geniuses of physics was a director of the Nazis’ atomic project during World War II. But speaking of the benefits of fiction, I should mention that my reading of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1989 book Gödel, Escher, Bach is behind the idea of Klingsor, and recently I was able to meet Hofstadter here in Paris because of the fact that I wrote this novel. It was an extraordinary experience; imaginary physics led me to a great living physicist.

MS In your most recent novel, The End of Madness, you continue the exploration that you begin in Klingsor, turning to Lacanian psychoanalysis and structuralism to determine to what extent uncertainty about the future and people’s moral relativity are relevant, especially in 1968 France. How would you define the revolutionary fervor of that era?

JV After 1968, which was the most important moment in the life of my new protagonist and the individuals of his generation, a madness begins that animates thousands of young people to seek to transform the world in a fundamental way, even using violence. It’s this idea—that the oppressive social system could be changed through armed revolt—that seems like revolutionary madness to me. We should be thankful that the madness affirming that arms could change the world has been lost, but it’s a shame that the very idea that the world could be transformed has been lost along with it.

MS What would you say are your literary principles? What type of rules do you follow when you write?

JV I don’t know if I could make a catalog of general principles…I think that a novel is a form of exploring the world. Personal stories, great history and human wisdom come together for me in fiction. The only rule is to be truthful and faithful to the beginnings that you have set in place. Research is fundamental in novels like Klingsor and The End of Madness, which recreate actual characters and moments. However, I have also written works dominated by imagination only. Each case is different. I prefer to tell my stories with first-person narrators, not because it’s easier, but because absolute truths don’t exist, and that is the idea that a novel written in this free, indirect style gives us. In a partial world, we only possess partial points of view, those of each one of us. Truly, it would be impossible for me to define my style because I believe that my obsession is one of permanent quest. The wonderful thing about the art of the novel is that there are no general rules.

MS Reactions to Klingsor have been varied and intense; some Germans had misgivings that a foreigner would write about Germany. In Spain it was compared to Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, while García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes have amply praised you. How do you feel about the criticism and the fact of being at the center of a polemic?

JV I believe that an author is enriched by all the readings his work receives. The most laudatory reviews have come from readers in many parts of the world who have told me that this novel has been important to them, that it has changed their ideas about the world. Five years after its publication, Klingsor continues to provoke strong reactions. I believe that’s the best thing that can happen to a novel.


Translated from the Spanish by Susan Briante.

Signor Hoffman by Eduardo Halfon

From the train I could look out onto the infinite blue of the sea. I was still exhausted, wakeful from the overnight transatlantic flight to Rome, but looking out at the sea, that Mediterranean sea that was so infinite and so blue, made me forget it all, even myself. I don’t know why.

Hyperbolics by Valeria Luiselli
Valeria Luiselli

Our first lot is a piece in a somewhat deteriorated state. Yet, considering its antiquity, the overall condition is good; one might even say excellent.

My Grandfather’s Disintegration by Antonio Ungar

This First Proof contains the story “My Grandfather’s Disintegration” by Antonio Ungar, translated by Katherine Silver.

Originally published in

BOMB 86, Winter 2004

Featuring interviews with Brooke Alfarmo, Stanley Greaves, Santiago Sierra, Erna Brober, Jorge Volpi and Martin Solares, and Jesus Tenreiro-Degwitz and Carlos Brillembourg.

Read the issue
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