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Freedom fighter and anti-war activist, journalist and novelist, Hans Koning reflects on seven decades of living and writing in the twentieth century

March 4, 1998

koningbk picture The action of Hans Koning's new novel, Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History, takes Lucas, the central character, to Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Mexico, and, finally, the United States. This peripatetic protagonist has more than a little in common with his creator: Hans Koning has spent much of his life moving from country to country. Since 1981 Koning has reported for The Atlantic on such topics as economic inequities in northern Italy, France's efforts at maintaining civic solidarity, Germany's lingering irredentism, the meaning of photography -- and, most recently, the horrors and achievements of the twentieth century, as understood by someone "who has traveled to the four corners of the globe ... and knows how it feels to be an underdog." Koning's writing is informed by political sensitivity and a strong moral edge -- not to mention a certain ironic spareness. Commenting on this style, The Atlantic's Phoebe-Lou Adams once remarked that Koning, who was born and raised in Holland, "uses his adopted language with the tube-squeezing economy and elegance of an artist."

In addition to his writing for The Atlantic, Koning -- born Hans Koningsberger in Amsterdam in 1924 -- has written more than twenty books (including twelve novels, some of which grew out of his reporting for The New Yorker). Among his best-known novels are The Petersburg-Cannes Express (1975), The Kleber Flight (1981), and De Witt's War (1983). Koning has also worked as a journalist in China, Russia, Cuba, Mexico, and Egypt. The New York Times has described his style as "personal travel-writing in the grand tradition."

Koning recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Ryan Nally.


Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Read the first chapter of Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History

Past Atlantic articles by Hans Koning:

"Notes on the Twentieth Century" (September, 1997)

"It was the bloodiest ever, but still some surprising good has come out of it."

"On France's Blessed South Coast" (December, 1996)
"The Côte d'Azur maintains a delightful, if delicate, balance between people and nature -- but it's an uphill struggle."

"Germania Irredenta" (July, 1996)
"Renouncing a provision of the 1945 Potsdam Declaration, Germans are looking more than wistfully at lands they lost in the war -- and suing to get them back. Do some things never change?"

"A French Mirror" (December, 1995)
"American politicians have begun to bemoan its merely vestigial presence in America, but in France a sense of civic solidarity -- the sens civique -- though weakened by market pressures, flourishes still. It is among the legacies that France is counting on as it prepares for the twenty-first century."

Writing recently about your new novel in The New York Times Book Review, William Ferguson called your main character's sanity into question, and then suggested that "the traditional role of the literary madman is to reveal uncomfortable truths." Was that your intention with Lucas?

konipic picture I don't agree with the idea that Lucas is a madman. He's more a Don Quixote figure. But Lucas certainly does reveal uncomfortable truths and, in a way, serves as my spokesman about the state of the world. I've tried to imbue all of my novels with a hidden agenda that isn't just some pat message. The greatest challenge for me has always been to write social realism without getting tendentious. But when I write fiction I don't plan things in a scientific or technical way. If the writing is going well, a character like Lucas takes on a life of his own.

You were born and raised in Amsterdam, fought in the British Liberation Army, studied at the Sorbonne, worked in radio in Indonesia, and traveled extensively in Russia, Egypt, and South America. Has it been as romantic as it sounds?

In retrospect, yes. At the time, however, it was not romantic in the least. In times of war you just try to survive. When I first came to the United States from Indonesia in 1951, various publishers asked me to write about my experiences with the Resistance and in the British Army during the Second World War. I always found it something I did not want to write about. When one writes about war one cheapens all sorts of great things done by those who didn't survive. Dewitt's War -- a novel I wrote some fifteen years ago set in German-occupied Holland during the War -- was done only at the insistent urging of my editor at Pantheon. I finally decided that there weren't that many people around anymore who genuinely knew what it felt like to be under German occupation. The way Hollywood was treating it was ridiculous, and even French movies weren't doing it well. So I thought it would be worthwhile to show people how it really had been. As in war, being under enemy occupation is mostly a matter of waiting, and of a great depression lit up by incidents of hope: assuredly not "romantic".

You're going to Europe soon to do some reporting, aren't you?

Yes. It's going to be hard work. The pleasure of writing a novel -- as you will realize if you have a go at it -- is that you can sit under a tree or in some café with a notebook and a pen and just write. When you're writing nonfiction you have to lug around about fifty books.

The idea for the piece I'm planning to do is to talk to the leaders of France, England, Holland, and Denmark, among others. There's a great battle going on in Western Europe right now. Most polls seem to show that seventy percent of Europeans don't want to give up their currency for the euro; the whole plan means a loss of identity for them. With the euro, the central authority will in the end be mostly German, because that's where the banking power is. But from a purely economic point of view it means greater efficiency, just like all the mergers in the United States. The bigger you are, the more effective you can be. It looks to me as if the banking and marketing guys are going to push this through even if they are a minority. Of course there is more to it; supposedly it will keep German ultra-nationalism in check.

What has it been like to write in a language that's not your native tongue?

My English came naturally. I was only seventeen when I left Holland and joined the British Army. I soon began to write in English and it became my mother, or stepmother, language, Dutch accent and all. Also, Dutch and English are quite close. If you read The Canterbury Tales, it reads almost like Dutch. The Dutch language, of course, is much poorer than English because it lacks the enormous input of Latin. For me English is by far the most lovely language to write in.

In "Notes on the Twentieth Century" (September, 1997, Atlantic) you wrote, "I cannot fathom how anyone can sit [in front of a TV] and tolerate the contempt shown to us in that slush of breathless 'messages,' trivial news, canned laughter, humorous weathermen, and all the rest." Do you find anything redeeming about contemporary popular culture?

Yes, if you allow me to draw a line between popular culture and the crummy commercialized entertainment that you find at the bottom of the barrel. Television as an invention has been spoiled in this country. It's now the lowest common denominator. But if you call movies popular culture, I think that there are many marvelous movies that have been made -- and will continue to be made -- in America, no matter what they say about Hollywood.

The need for a greater sense of civic solidarity among people is something you've emphasized in the past. In fact, your Atlantic article "A French Mirror" (December, 1995) describes in detail how France strives to maintain its unique sens civique. Why is this so important to you?

Because civic solidarity is the only counterforce to globalization and the market economy. If the argument is only about how you get the maximum production and what is the cheapest way to produce a car, then there's nothing to argue about. The only other defense was socialism, but it didn't fill the bill. A sens civique provides an antidote to the feeling that the important thing in life is the bottom line. You read how American companies are doing marvelously because they have fired half their employees. That lack of sens civique is a disaster for society. A sense of civic solidarity is an ideology of decency without any sort of theorizing. Simply stated, money is not the only thing that matters. Not even the first thing.

You recently wrote that the men and women of the twentieth century long ago tuned out politics. Yet much of your writing contains a distinct political edge -- so much so that many reviewers have even labeled you a "political writer." What do you make of that designation?

I think all writing is political. In France nobody would suggest that a novel may be unpolitical. The human condition simply must play a part in a book, and "political," in my mind, means that the tableau of the characters' actions reflects the human condition in all its ups and downs. Somebody who writes a gothic love story is political by being apolitical. This idea is something that's not widely accepted in the United States. An old editor of mine once said that a black could never write a real novel because it would always be an advocacy novel. My answer to that is that a serious novel is advocacy.

Toward the end of your 1990 Atlantic essay on photography you write, "If the Third World's first problem is hunger, maybe ours in the First World is boredom, a boredom so passive, often so hopeless, that books, or walks, or sports, or even love, cannot assuage it. Only images will do." In a world driven by images, how do you continue to maintain faith in the written word?

I certainly have not lost faith in the word as a unique way of influencing people, of moving people, and of educating people. It simply has no competition. The scary thing is that the written word is so uncompetitive in the marketplace. The whole business of buying and selling things takes place in an image-driven world of television. I hope that there is a pendulum swinging back here and that eventually the written word regains its supremacy.

Take the news. If you have fifteen minutes with The New York Times or The Boston Globe, you can find out rather quicky what you want to know about the world. If you watch TV for an hour, even if you cut out the ads, you barely learn anything. Read Fernand Braudel, the great French historian who wrote about the deep currents that make the modern world go, and you will understand things so much better than if you watch a documentary, no matter how well it's done. I have every faith in the written word, but I often lose faith in the capacity of the modern world to keep the written word from being swept aside by images.


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