A tragedy only works is you truly care about the character whose life is spinning out of control. Despite its comic undertones, Michael Kumpfmüller’s The Adventures of a Bed Salesman is essentially a tragedy about a man, Heinrich Hampel, who allows his life to get away from him so completely that the reader has to know that it all must end badly. However, the book’s structure is so expansive and convoluted, it is hard to care about the man at its center.
Bed Salesman opens in 1962 as Heinrich crosses the Berlin Wall, leaving West Germany for East Germany, in what turns out to be a futile attempt to escape the debts mounting in his home country, where he works as a bed and bedding salesman. Although he is reluctant to admit it, Heinrich is also running from his long-suffering wife, Rosa, as well as an growing string of mistresses. At least part of that plan backfires as well when Rosa, learning of her husband’s departure, takes their children to join him in the East, much to Heinrich’s quiet consternation. Life in the West turns out to be more or less like life in the East, as Heinrich continues to pursue his twin vices of booze and women. Meanwhile, the story continually flashes back to Heinrich’s past, including his life in the West with Rosa and his many women, and his upbringing with his dysfunctional family, which also includes his disapproving siblings and a rapidly deteriorating father.
The book also details Heinrich’s many flings with various women, including a Stalin devotee, some amorous customers, and the family’s maid. With so much going on, it’s almost impossible to keep the reader’s interest, and Kumpfmüller proves himself unequal to the task. Though we know pretty much everything about Heinrich’s past, he shows few endearing qualities (other than total trust and naiveté) that would compel us to mourn his rapid descent into disaster. This could have made a compelling story, but Bed Salesman is little more than a list of sad events in the lives of unhappy people.