“Wonderful and thrilling” – When We Cease to Understand Things by Benjamín Labatut (trans. by Adrian Nathan West)

IMG_11May2021at132646Benjamín Labatut’s third book (although first to be translated into English) came to me out of the blue like a veritable thunderbolt. I’d heard nothing about it in advance, read a review in the Guardian, thought it sounded great and then read it – boom! Best thing I’ve read this year so far.

What we have here may appear dry on the surface – five essays about philosophers and mathematicians, by and large, only one of which lasts for more than 30 pages (the title piece which concerns Schrodinger and Heisenberg runs a little longer, to 90 pages). You can if you so choose read it in an afternoon, as I did, but you may find yourself reading it again the next day (as I did) and then thinking about when you will read it a third or a fourth time in the future whilst ruminating on the best place for it on your bookshelves (so it doesn’t look like it’s been ostentatiously placed but, you know, it’s there, it can be seen, it’s a jewel waiting to be plucked by future readers).

“This is a work of fiction based upon real events,” Labatut writes in the acknowledgements that close out the book:

“The quantity of fiction grows throughout the book; whereas “Prussian Blue” contains only one fictional paragraph, I have taken greater liberties in the subsequent texts, while still trying to remain faithful to the scientific concepts discussed in each.”

‘Prussian Blue’ is a sort of Sebald-like phantasmagoria, that begins with Herman Göring’s addiction to dihydrocodeine, and then spins out to include Heinrich Böll (addicted to pills on the front, writing to his family begging for prescriptions), the dispensation of cyanide tablets to allow for mass suicides following a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1945, and the production of Zyklon-B (the poison used by the Nazis in the concentration camps) before finally settling its gaze on the pigment Prussian Blue (the world’s first synthetic pigment). All of which – still – may sound rather dry, or if not dry then at least gloomy and morbid – but it is thrilling. As far as reading experiences go, I’d put this up there with Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

‘Prussian Blue’ is followed with ‘Schwarzschild’s Singularity’, which features the first (but not the last) appearance of Albert Einstein (there is a review of this book that could follow the path Einstein takes over the course of these essays, a little bemused and then gradually disillusioned timoleon vieta haunting its periphery) who receives an envelope from the front lines of World War 1 containing a proof to a theory he had published only a month earlier, written by a man called Karl Schwarzschild, a brilliant mind gradually deranged by knowledge. The essay (we’ll call it that even though it’s actually a story) concerns “something strange that [had] begin to grow inside [Schwarszchild]”:

“I don’t know how to name it or define it, but it has an irresistible force and darkens all my thoughts. It is a void without form or dimension, a shadow I can’t see, but one that I can feel with the entirety of my soul.”

In addition to the glory of the writing (and credit has to go to translator Adrian Nathan West without whom I wouldn’t have got to read this book), there are facts here that struck me with incredible force – such as the news (and it was news to me) that the moon “turns on its axis at the same speed as it rotates around our planet, one of its faces… eternally hidden from view.”

One of the great tensions of the book, manifested time and again, is between the desire for an organising principle and the almost overwhelming lack of a pattern to anything. We see this in ‘Schwarzschild’s Singularity’ – where Schwarzschild dreams of the coming of a new Copernicus because “the alternative was unbearable” – and again in the title story where Einstein is brought low by the theory eventually proposed by Heisenberg that formed the foundation of what went on to become quantum mechanics.

Each of Labatut’s ‘characters’ (again, we say characters but they are for the most part historical figures and Labatut largely sticks to the historical evidence) gradually become inflamed by an idea, by some inalienable truth they see (or glimpse) that dogs their days and nights and sends them half mad. There are sections of the title story for instance that read much like B Catling’s Earwig – and we imagine that B Catling would get an almighty kick out of this book.

Nightmares spill out of the pages – “countless men and women with slanted eyes, their bodies sculpted of soot and ash, were stretching out their arms” – refracted through the daily nightmare of our waking lives, “the supremacy of smart phones, … the internet, … the coming promise of godlike computing power”, which work “as if by some strange miracle”.

“The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another plant, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no understanding.”

So, dear reader, whilst it may not appear to be the kind of book you’d make a beeline for, we urge you to make a beeline for it. For we need to read more by Labatut and surely that can only happen if you are all good souls and purchase the necessary copies to make that happen. We’ll say thanks to you ahead of time.

Any Cop?: A wonderful and thrilling read. We can’t wait to read more by the inestimable Labatut.

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