Reading Time: 4 minutes

When We Cease to Understand the World is an excellent but very odd book. Kernels of fact are surrounded by glittering shells of variegated fiction. As a genre, it feels different than historical fiction. It might rather be labeled biographical fiction, or fictive biography, or truth that never occurred. 

I got through the whole book before I found out that what I read was mostly untrue. It was on the very last page that Chilean author Benjamin Labatut told me that what I had spent three days reading was “a work of fiction based on real events,” and that the fiction “grows throughout the book,” so that the earliest story is somewhat and perhaps mostly factual, then each succeeding story becomes more and more fantastical, with elements of fact thrown in. 

The mortar that holds the cinder blocks together is factual while the blocks themselves are fiction.

Since I came to this book on the recommendation of a friend, I knew nothing about it. I like to read books and see films on the suggestion of people I trust, knowing nothing or almost nothing about the books or movies in advance. For this book, I thought I was picking up straight biography. It reads that way. Yes, my suspicions were aroused here and there by the intimate and bizarre details of the stories, but since the men who are the subjects of this book are all scientific geniuses, I was willing to accept their eccentricities as the lay of the land for virtuosos of this stripe.

The author Benjamin Labatut is in his early 40s and has lived in Holland, Argentina, Peru, and currently in Chile. This book, his third, is his first translated into English—and very beautifully rendered by Adrian Nathan West. Labatut has won literary awards, and When We Cease to Understand the World was shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. The publisher of this book, Pushkin Press, which boasts of offering the best writers from around the world, certainly has a cast of remarkable authors in its list, including Labatut himself.

When We Cease to Understand the World is a series of vignettes on brilliant scientists. 

The first “biography” is about Jewish-German chemist Fritz Haber, who (actually) won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918. Haber saved billions of people from starvation with a process for extracting nitrogen for use as fertilizer to increase crop yields. He married Clara Immerwahr, the first woman in Germany to earn a doctorate in chemistry. Haber’s story darkens when we learn of his participation in chemical warfare on French troops in World War I and his indirect hand in gassing Jews—a powerful pesticide he helped invent (zyklon) was utilized by the Nazis in the death camps. So here we have a German Jew accidentally contributing to the death of his family members (though Haber himself escaped Nazi Germany).

Labatut garnishes all of this with fiction. Haber’s wife Clara killed herself with a shot to her chest from Haber’s own pistol, for example, but Labatut makes that suicide the climax of a marital argument on the military uses of chemistry. That detail is not a matter of fact. It’s truth plus fiction. And the whole of the story is quite beautiful.

The second “biography” concerns Karl Schwarzschild, a Jewish-German physicist who wrote to Jewish-German Albert Einstein from a 1915 World War I battlefield with very precise solutions to Einstein’s “field equations.” This was a revelation that Einstein marveled at and welcomed. Schwarzschild went on to become the youngest professor in Germany. Benjamin Labatut lavishes Schwarzschild with numerous eccentricities, none of which are factually true. Labatut tells of Schwarzschild taking extravagant risks with his life and the life his brother and friends in climbing adventures in the Swiss Alps. But I cannot corroborate this story. And Labatut’s galloping imagination has Schwarzschild involved in the gassing of French troops mentioned in the Haber story. Schwarzschild was indeed asked to use his mathematical skills to help German officers make ballistic calculations so that bombs would drop precisely where the German officers intended them to drop. But there’s no evidence that Schwarzschild did that for the bombs containing gas. It’s fact plus fiction. And the whole of the story is exquisitely beautiful.

The third “biography” concerns two math geniuses. The first is the Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki (born in 1969 and entered Princeton at age 16), a marvel in number theory. The second is Jewish-German Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014), whom some call the greatest mathematician of the twentieth century. Here, Benjamin Labatut uses one eccentric mathematician to annotate the life of a second eccentric mathematician. But Labatut exaggerates the oddness of Shinichi Mochizuki and Grothendieck in numerous ways, first, in a story about Mochizuki solving aspects of Grothendieck’s ideas that stunned the entire world of mathematics with theories that seemed to be from a future century. No one living now, says Labatut could fully penetrate Mochizuki’s math, and Mochizuki stubbornly refused to annotate or defend his ideas. But Shinichi Mochizuki is only a calling card for the person Labatut really wants to discuss, and that’s Alexander Grothendieck. We cannot discount Grothendieck’s genius, but Labatut lathers on extremely bizarre stories of the mathematician ripping up carpets in homes, sleeping on removed doors, and inviting all manner of social outcasts to live in his home like it’s a commune. In a final scene, Grothendieck is on his deathbed in a hospital, and he has forbidden anyone to see him—no family, no friends. Except one. A nurse recalls that a lone, shy Japanese man was granted entry. (We are not told who the man is but of course it’s supposed to be Shinichi Mochizuki.) And this mysterious Japanese man stayed with Grothendieck until Grothendieck’s dying last breath. This is not factual. It’s true, yet it’s untrue. And the whole of the story is elegant and beautiful.

Get the picture?

Remaining chapters in the collection are about Louis De Brogelie, the French winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1929; Werner Heisenberg, the German winner of the Nobel Prize in physics 1932; and Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1933.

In each of these “biographies” we have kernels of truth lying among husks of the wildest fabrication. Don’t imagine this is a book only for scientists. It is a book for humanists and lovers of language. I am not a scientist, and I was wholly drawn into these stories and startled by the sentences. Benjamin Labatut is young. We may expect from him—and welcome from him—decades of intricately tooled literary artistry, be it fact or be it fiction.

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...

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