July 2003

Jessa Crispin

fiction

The Adventures of a Bed Salesman by Michael Kumpfmuller

As books cross borders and languages, titles come and go. Unfortunately for Americans, the title of Michael Kumpfmuller's debut novel went from clever and meaningful - Hampel's Flights - to clumsy and misleading - The Adventures of a Bed Salesman. From the title of the book, the reader expects something racy and action packed. Instead, it's a slightly over-long, but solid debut about the strange life of a split Germany.

As the book opens in West Germany, Heinrich Hampel has racked up an extreme amount of debt, has a wife he barely knows, a dozen mistresses, one of whom is becoming increasingly expensive, and a business about to go under. It's 1962, and Hampel decides his only escape is to flee to East Germany. His family is originally from East Germany, having snuck over the border a decade earlier. And now he's going back, expecting the government to welcome him with open arms.

His clean break is not as clean as he may have hoped, nor is his welcome as enthusiastic as he envisioned. He is placed in a camp while they question him about his motives, and he finds he is not the only person fleeing from too much freedom in the West. As he waits, the authorities call his wife and let her know where he is. She packs a suitcase, gathers up her two children, and follows him without question. In the East, he quickly takes up his old ways with new mistresses, fencing stolen goods to make ends meet, and drinking heavily. What he doesn't seem to notice, however, is that East Germany is much less tolerant of his behavior, and he ends up in prison three times.

In fact, he seems oblivious to where he is. His life was full of travel - Russia, East Germany, West Germany, South Africa - but in each new place, he continues his life as exactly before. He is recruited to write reports on others, and he willingly starts reporting on his multiple mistresses. Everyone around Hampel understood the danger of saying the wrong thing in front of the wrong person, but he seemed to think they were all overreacting. One of his mistresses was especially jittery about the authorities. "[A]lthough it surprised him at first he soon got used to the way she sometimes jumped out of bed for no obvious reason and ran to the door, looking and listening to see if there was anyone looking and listening outside." He accuses her of exaggerating, and sees nothing wrong with the country where his wife and children are starving, and the only meat they can ever procure is a sliver of sausage once a week. He blindly becomes a spokesperson for the East, bickering with his brother back in the West, threatening to turn in his wife for saying she wants to leave the country.

The book is difficult to begin reading. The jumping back and forth in time is mostly painless to follow, but the sentence structure can be distracting. "When they sent in the last invoices for the big hotel order at the beginning of December Heinrich said: There, you see, Lehmann, we can't be in such a bad way if we're pulling in orders like this and sending our customers big fat bills, and Lehmann did in fact look quite surprised, or perhaps Heinrich only though Lehmann looked quite surprised, but at least he didn't contradict what Heinrich had said." All of the sentences are like this one, rambling, folding back on top of itself, dying for a period or two. But once you fall into the flow of the book, the sentences and the peculiar timeline make sense. Kumpfmuller is writing the way memory works, shooting off in one direction until a name sparks another memory causing a ricochet off in another direction. What feels awkward in the beginning eventually feels instinctual.

The main problem of the book is that it feels about 100 pages too long. Hampel never grows up, never learns from his mistakes. And he keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over again, yet Kumpfmuller keeps detailing those mistakes each and every time. By the twelfth mistress and the third jailing and the fifth time he begs his wife to forgive him, the reader knows exactly what Hampel is going to do next, and it's boring. Passages at the end of his life are tedious to read because he is so oblivious and has been for the last 420 pages. Having an immature protagonist is not what is objectionable. It's that the third time he makes the same mistake, the reader does not need the full story. They can fill in the blanks themselves.

Which is not to say that Hampel is all bad. He's certainly a delight to read about when he's not fucking up, and he does have his moments of clarity. His second daughter Susanna is born with spina bifida, and when Rosa rejects her he lovingly carries his daughter, whispering in her ear to please hang on, her mother would not be able to recover from her death. She dies a few days after birth, and Hampel drives her around in his car for hours before he can bear delivering her body to the hospital, telling her "something about himself, his travels to Russia and South Africa, his first years in Jena when he was a child himself, his first years with Rosa, and what was he going to say to her big sister Eva when he came back without Eva's new little sister, the little sister who had only come to visit for a few days and had a big dressing on her back." Unfortunately, it's one of the very few genuinely sweet moments Hampel has. The sympathy gained by this scene is squandered by the end of the book.

The most interesting character in the book is Rosa, and we do not get enough of her. Her transformation from blindly following her husband to East Germany, to asking him to please put down a towel when he conducts his affairs in their bed, to initiating a divorce and making her way back to the West. Hampel and Rosa only got married because of a pregnancy, and neither one is happy about it. However, Rosa's unhappiness is mostly silent until she comes into her own as Hampel spends three years in his first prison sentence. I wanted a book about Rosa so that I could see how she was when he was not around.

The book was translated by Anthea Bell, a highly respected translator, so the language is nearly flawless. The only awkwardness is during the sex scenes. There is a strange reliance on the word "penis" and the phrase "doing it," and the scenes themselves are not at all sexy. Despite the flaws and the book's length, it is a reasonably quick read, and other than a few passages, it's highly entertaining. At any rate, after a debut like this, it'll be interesting to see what Michael Kumpfmuller comes up with next.

The Adventures of a Bed Salesman by Michael Kumpfmuller
Picador
ISBN: 0312287488
432 Pages