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Jorge Volpi: En busca de Klingsor (In Search of Klingsor)

Klingsor is an evil magician in Wolfram von Eschenbach‘s Parzival (which was the basis for Wagner’s opera Parsifal) but, in this book, it is the code name for the senior scientific advisor of Nazi Germany. The story is narrated by the fictitious Gustav Links. Like most of the male characters in this book, Links is a physicist. He had been involved in the German wartime atom bomb programme but had escaped punishment because he had been arrested following the 20 July 1944 plot, led by Claus von Stauffenberg. Following this plot, the Gestapo arrested not only all the plotters, but their family members and friends. They were quickly tried by the Volksgerichthof (People’s Court) under Roland Freisler. Links, whose friend was tangentially involved in the plot, was brought to the court together with the very real Fabian von Schlabrendorff. An actual Allied air raid took place at this time with a bomb hitting the court, killing Freisler (this is historical). The real von Schlabrendorff and the fictitious Links were spared the court’s judgement and sent to prison and then various concentration camps. Both survived the war. But, though Links is the narrator, the main character is Francis Percy Bacon.

When a child, Bacon had a serious fever and, during this fever, he realised that he loves numbers. He went on to study quantum mechanics at Princeton. After graduating, he is offered a post in the prestigious Institute of Advanced Study, where he meets Einstein, Kurt Gödel and, in particular, John von Neumann. Von Neumann is his supervisor and he learns much from him, despite the fact that von Neumann can be quite unpleasant. In particular, he learns about game theory from von Neumann and they discuss two practical applications of it. The first (the discussion is in 1940) is whether the United States will join the war. Game theory proves conclusively that it is in the United States’ best interest to do. The other application concerns Bacon’s love life, where it is less successful.

One of the many themes of this novel is that top scientists (and, presumably, other ones) have many others concerns than their science. These include romance (we learn about the love life of many them including several historical characters and it is certainly not all conventional or easy), politics (scientists have political views!), power (some of them enjoy power) and one-upmanship, particularly against their closest colleagues. Links and Bacon are at fault more in their sexual relationships than in the other ones. Links enjoys watching his wife’s Lesbian relations with her best friend (and, incidentally, the wife of the man tangentially involved in the July 1944 plot, which nearly cost Links his life). Bacon’s career at the Institute of Advanced Studies is jeopardised because of his simultaneous sexual relationships with two women (a rich white woman and a poor black one), which spills over into his work. Volpi even goes so far as to link sexual relationships with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, with Heisenberg and his sex life featuring in this book.

But the main theme of this book is the search for Klingsor. Bacon is offered a post in the US Army when things do not work out too well for him at the Institute of Advanced Studies. The position involves specialised scientific knowledge. One of his tasks involves rounding up all the key German scientists in the final stages of the war, making sure that the US captures them and not the Russians and, almost as much, not the French. However, at the start of the book, he is given another task. A captured prisoner mentions, in passing, that all major Nazi scientific decisions were taken by a man whose code name was Klingsor. He will later deny having said this. Initially, it seems that there is no such person but, gradually, a few more clues come to light about this person. Who is he? What did he do? And why has he evaded capture? Bacon, with the aid of Links, has to find him. To do so, he speaks to many of the very real Germans scientists who were involved in the Nazi atom bomb effort, as well as to other key physicists of the period. He journeys around Europe, learning about the ins and outs of contemporary physics and about the bitter rivalries between the various key players. But nothing seems to bring him any nearer to the elusive Klingsor. Even those who have heard of him – very few will admit this and then deny it when they do – do not seem to know his real identity. Or do they? That is Bacon’s conundrum. Someone must know and, more particularly, one of them must be Klingsor. But Volpi is using modern science as the basis for his novel and everything from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to Schrödinger’s Cat is not only part of the plot but part of Volpi’s structure.

As an introduction to modern atomic physics – both the science and the personalities – this novel is first-class. It also tells us a lot about what went on in Nazi Germany, particularly during the latter stages of the war. Volpi gives us blow by blow accounts of the 20 July plot and other key events. But he also tells us an intriguing story, built around modern physics and mathematics and using some of their techniques and it is this that makes this novel so interesting and to which it owes much of its success.

Publishing history

First published by Seix Barral in 1999
First published in English by Scribner in 2002