Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Volpi's Klingsor: Science, Mann, Magic, and the Middle Ages

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Volpi's Klingsor: Science, Mann, Magic, and the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

One of the last blockbuster novels to come out of Latin America as the twentieth century drew to a close was Jorge Volpi's En busca de Klingsor (1999). It took Spain by storm as well, winning the prestigious Seix Barral Prize. It has been, or is being, translated into at least twenty languages, and the author is scheduled to make a promotional tour through the United States toward the middle of 2002 to coincide with its release in English. While we can anticipate a substantial corpus of secondary literature in the future, the work is still so recent that scholars have not had time to produce much.

Interestingly, the novel has no connection with Volpi's native Mexico, or even with Latin America. Cabrera Infante, as cited on the back cover of the book, appropriately calls it "una novela alemana escrita en espanol." (1) At least as surprising as the setting is the subject matter, for to say that science is an unusual topic for Hispanic letters risks being misleading by way of understatement. In fact, Volpi finds it worrisome that his countrymen take so little interest in science. (2) No less a figure than Elena Poniatowska echoes his observation. (3) The first part of this study will treat Klingsor as a novel of science. The remainder will focus on a very different dimension that we can sum up with the alliteration of the title: Mann, magic, and the Middle Ages.

Volpi incorporates a large amount of factual information about the development of physics and the lives and careers of leading physicists. Physics certainly was the quintessential science of the twentieth century, and the layman may well regard it, paradigmatically for science in general, as a set of absolute laws. Between 1550 and 1800, Ptolemaic certainty gradually gave way to Copernican-Galilean-Newtonian certainty. However, discoveries by two of the leading physicists featured in this book brought revolutionary changes overnight. Of course, their involvement with politics is also relevant. Einstein is naturally important because of his theory of relativity and his firm anti-totalitarian stance. Yet ultimately we must recognize the centrality of the enigmatic Heisenberg. The protagonist, the narrator, and the author all contribute, albeit in different ways. Is he the diabolical mastermind behind Hitler's attempt to build a nuclear bomb, or is he humanity's guardian angel, making sure that the project goes in circles? The uncertainty principle that bears his name silently governs the book and, if we reflect, proved remarkably symptomatic for the entire century. In Volpi's autographed dedication in my copy of the book, he refers to "esta novela sobre la incertidumbre y el azar."

The structure of the novel and the word choice for the chapter headings clearly underscore both the scientific element and its connections with other, strictly personal aspects of the characters' lives. The epigraph cites Erwin Schrodinger, a real-life physicist and a character in the story. Many of the themes in the book appear here in nuce: science, game, reality, danger, puzzle, experiment, uncertainty, and limits. The elements of love and sex, quite prominent in the text, do not appear. However, the very fact that Volpi chooses a quotation from Schrodinger forges a none-too-subtle connection with those areas in view of the physicist's notoriously voracious sexual appetites, which Volpi documents in detail.

The novel is divided into three books, each of which begins with three laws. The first book offers the "Laws of Narrative Movement" (4) before proceeding to the Nuremberg trials. Next comes a chapter called "From Quantum Physics to Espionage" that presents five hypotheses about the protagonist, who is a latter-day namesake of Francis Bacon, and treats three famous physicists. Then comes a chapter, paradoxically called autobiographical and subtitled "From Set Theory to Totalitarianism," that consists of five disquisitions on the life of Gustav Links, the narrator. …

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