Wanderjahre: a Reporter's Journey in Mad World review: Alpha-male's globetrotting tales turn into an ego-trip

The Independent, Sunday 8 June 2014

When Lutz Kleveman was a small boy on his parents’ country estate in northern Germany, the family’s old Prussian retainer set him a toughening-up exercise: kill five kittens in a bucket with a spade.

Young Lutz bludgeoned away, appalled by the task but feeling a need to prove that he was every bit as tough as his grandfather, Hans-Heinrich, who – though long dead – remained very much alive in the minds of his descendants.

Grandfather Hans had been a soldier and a wanderer. Caught behind Russian lines in the First World War, he crossed Siberia on a circuitous route back home and his jottings about his journey form a kind of backdrop to his grandson’s longer and infinitely more hectic travels.

A self-confessed addict of war zones, Kleveman spent eight years charging around from the Balkans to West Africa, the Caucasus, Latin America, various bits of Russia and South-east Asia, finishing in North Korea. None of the wars he encountered provided the sought-for adrenalin rush for long. The Balkans was good for some “whiskey-filled debauchery”, but was soon pronounced “a backwater”.

Iraq was awful from start finish, the men ill-shaven, ill-tempered and always “madly gesticulating for no apparent reason”. West Africa was squalid, and after a worrying experience with a hooker, featuring a broken condom, he cleared out. Down in the Caucasus, he teamed up with a KGB type whose wife made a pass at him.

A lot of people apparently wanted to go to bed with this tall, strapping German, including the teenage son of an Afghan tribesman. Evidently, he often succumbed to these advances because his long-suffering German girlfriend at one point announced that she had had enough. (She changed her mind later.)

Kleveman is one of those alpha-male types who enjoys courting trouble. In Burma, he gave an angry general a Hitler salute. He entered Laos claiming to be a nuclear weapons inspector. In North Korea, he drove his minders crazy by trying to take photographs of starving farmers. In London, promoting an earlier book, he turned up for a radio interview drunk.

No doubt, Kleveman is a very entertaining companion in the flesh, with an inexhaustible fund of stories about all the people who nearly killed him in Africa, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Asia, but I didn’t feel I learned much about the many countries he tore through. In the end, he says he lost his desire to travel because he no longer had curiosity about, or empathy with, the rest of the world. One problem about this book, for me, was that I never felt he had much to begin with.