Hans Koning
Novelist and travel writer
The Independent
07 June 2007
Christopher Hawtree

"To see a young woman naked, with the knowledge that you are going to make love to her, seems the happiest experience on earth, antidote to everything, even to death," avers the narrator of The Kleber Flight (1981), a novel by Hans Koning, whose end at 85 partly disproves that theory.

Such a spirit, however, animated a series of erotically charged novels, beginning with The Affair (1958). That incisive eye for human behaviour and sense of place soon also brought Koning wide-ranging travel writing, and he became so "radicalised" by the Vietnam war that his non-fiction took a new turn which led to a forthright take on the bicentennial with the influential Columbus: His Enterprise: exploding the myth (1976).

He was born Hans Koningsberger in Amsterdam in 1921, and saw in the decoration of his grandparents' house an echo of earlier centuries - and "directly before that, you are in the tail end of the Middle Ages". In the here and now of the 20th century, on the cusp of another war, he was brought up in some poverty, selling one book to buy the next and looking for lost poodles in hope of the offered reward.

While at the University of Amsterdam, he joined the Dutch resistance. "I am glad I went through those years. They almost provide an alibi for finking out: some things you can do only once". This led him to Zurich and internment, when he worked on swamp drainage. He studied maths and physics at Zurich university before joining the French underground in 1943. After the Liberation he volunteered for the British Army in France. As the narrator of The Affair put it, this was not a brave deed. He had never dreamed of conceiving it in that way. It was something he had to do for a number of undefined reasons, and for several childish and vain ones, which didn't bother him because he was sure everybody who did a thing like that had them too and it was part of the game that no one ever spoke of them. Perhaps they were all that courage was made of.

In late 1944, in pretending "to tie my shoe, I put a hand flat against the ground to feel England". London seethed. The night before a date with a waitress, he availed himself of the services of a six-bob tart; as a friend told him, "It's so cheap, you can't do it for less yourself". To some, such a city may have sounded "drab and shabby, but it wasn't. Everything we did then was right . . . it seemed as sensuous a city then as some imaginary Baghdad".

Koningsberger was sent with the Army to Germany - "a feudal pleasure, and yet legitimate (for the last time in history, I'd assume), in that feudal landscape, being a conqueror". After three years' journalism back in Holland, he then, in 1950, saw the dying days of Empire with work on culture radio in Java. There he was shot at, when overtaking something which turned out to be a hearse, after which he survived typhoid fever. To return home, he joined a merchant vessel via Los Angeles, where he took a Greyhound bus to New York. Before long, in Amsterdam, in a movie theatre watching Born Yesterday with my mother, I suddenly had tears in my eyes with longing to get out of there and back to New York. Western Europe, sliding back into its pre-war smugness, bored me to distraction.

Now with another culture job, at the United Nations, he partly lived on food at receptions and began to establish himself as a writer; he later called this domestic set-up "stale years, shabbily comfortable" but, spurred by the loan of a flat in rakish Haiti, he produced The Affair, an elegant evocation of Zurich: "a closely knit machine with a little glass window through which to peek at a pre-war century".

Deplored by its publisher, Alfred Knopf, but praised elsewhere, it led to several brisk accounts, often in the first person, of fraught relationships, such as the short chapters of a euphoric-turned- claustrophobic marriage in An American Romance (1960). TransAmerican affairs are related unblushingly by a woman in I Know What I'm Doing (1964); in New York, she reports, "things which took up most of your energy in England seem to get accomplished here almost unnoticed". There had been a rather less convincing diversion along similar lines in A Walk With Love and Death (1961), filmed in 1969 by John Huston with his daughter Angelica in the lead role.

Koningsberger was now regularly writing for The New Yorker, from which came Love and Hate in China (1966). His growing anger at America brought involvement in protest movements which he later described in Nineteen Sixty-Eight (1987). To help the effort, he chose to change his name to Hans Koning (as the narrator of The Kleber Flat says, "people who change their names rarely do it drastically, they like to hold on a bit to the old one"). What's more, most oddly, he thought it only right to give up fiction.

After a while, though, he realised that his place was at a desk, and reflected on his life so far in The Almost World (1972). After accounts of such places as Russia, Egypt and Cuba, he returned to fiction with Death of a Schoolboy (1974), about Gavrilo Princip who in June 1914, in Sarajevo, shot the heir to the throne, himself dying a virgin in prison towards the end of the war he had precipitated. Such was Koning's mind that this idea came to him after thinking about the man who, on Christmas Day 1942, was executed by the Vichy government for shooting, in Algiers, Darlan, the Nazi French admiral who had agreed an armistice with the Allies.

Koning's was a restless, cosmopolitan intelligence, finding inspiration everywhere, a quality well caught in the blistering first- person novel America Made Me (1979). That America's origins were described in the book on Columbus, which offers an unflinching account of Indians' hands being chopped off if they did not return with enough gold dust. It caused uproar, all the more so as in it Koning said of such things, "in Brazil, it is going on even now". As for the Nazis, he said, "they did the subject races of the world a favour. The great white-race civil war which we call World War Two weakened Europe and broke its grip on Asia and Africa".

For Koning, mankind was always in flux, but it would be a mistake to think him forever riled. His large, varied and varying output is that of a man as beguiled as he is horrified by everything about him.

Hans Koningsberger (Hans Koning), writer: born Amsterdam 12 July 1921; married 1947 Henriette Waterland (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1952 Elizabeth Martinez (marriage dissolved), 1963 Katherine Scanlon (one son, one daughter); died Easton, Connecticut 13 April 2007.