“The Conqueror,” Jan Kjaerstad’s second book in a trilogy that also includes “The Seducer” and “The Discoverer,” doesn’t spin a single yarn so much as weave from several. This web struggles to trace back, through the events of Jonas’ life, what could have made this man so evil. Yet throughout “The Conqueor,” it’s hard to see anything demonic about Jonas at all, despite the glaring fact that he’s on trial for killing the woman of his dreams. Kjaerstad makes it easier, instead, to simply laugh at and pity Jonas’ weaknesses in the face of his environment. Ultimately, one can’t help but sympathize with a man who sacrifices everything he loves in search of a dream: “He could not stand it: first to seduce, to conquer, an entire nation and then… to stand naked in all his vacuity before his wife, the woman he loved, the only person he really wished to conquer; he was a conquistador who had won everything, then suddenly found himself confronted with a culture which he did not understand and which he therefore had to destroy.”
“The Conqueror” is a pleasant, easy read since it’s broken up into convenient and short chapters. The plot is divided into short scenes in Jonas’ life that attempt to reconstruct and represent the person he has become. The order of these scenes—neither chronological nor under the sway of any organizing voice—and the degree to which each story is important to the novel’s framework are both arbitrary.
Unfortunately, a handful of these sections seem to leave Jonas’ story half-told. Chapters that deal explicitly with the death of Margurete, Jonas’ wife, why she may have been murdered, and the subsequent trial each seem like subjects too sensitive for the source of narrator to dwell on. The professor, our transcriber, writes, “Suddenly she (the secret source) falls silent. She has never done that before. Stayed quiet for so long… All stories deal with what cannot be said, cannot be written.” Instead, the story moves on to various other aspects of Jonas’s life: his history of ex-lovers or his adventures with childhood friends.
Despite this dark and mysterious diversion, Kjaerstad manages to keep the vast majority of this novel light and upbeat. He easily manages this by narrating his story as a conversation between a secret source and the professor asked to write the biography of Jonas Wergeland. There are some chapters where the professor just reflects on his secret source, who he refers to as his savior, but also on the life of Jonas, and every story ties into the demon that Jonas Wergeland really was.
Jonas had been reminded from the day that he was born that he would never overcome his commonness, that he would never amount to anything great. These thoughts haunted him so often that Jonas had become a man who “had an almost pathological need to feel different” and to prove that he was anything but ordinary.
Kjaerstad’s main character is truly the strength of the novel. Jonas’ consciousness and his growth into an adult, framed by an enormous Napoleon complex, never cease to fascinate. It’s even more intriguing to read about a man that destroyed or abandoned anyone he ever loved (e.g. his best friends, his wife, his brother) because of his fear that these people would leave him. This fear would render confirmation of itself.
Kjaerstad deftly creates anecdotes out of the dark places of Jonas’ past, showing their significance as catalysts for his desire to be a conqueror—anecdotes that explore this fear of becoming ‘ordinary’ manifest themselves as catalysts for the neurosis that would culminate in his murderous deed.
This sort of formula, however, can stray toward the annoying when Kjaerstad resorts to rhetorical questions: “What makes a conqueror? What makes a murderer?” It’s nice to have some reminders as to what this scattered form of storytelling is building up to, but at a certain point it begins to sound like nagging, and the story risks losing its sense of wonder.
However, on the whole, Kjaerstad’s novel addresses the ever-growing pressures to be someone great or do something memorable. Such are the pressures of today, when in schools and workplaces alike, there is a drive to be the best and to stand out. Everyone wants to be a modern day hero; everyone wants to be remembered. This was the dream of Jonas Wergeland, but his pursuit of remembrance and glory only brought him defeat.