Finishing among the finalists for the International Booker Prize and the National Book Award with your first book translated into English, and for Barack Obama to have included it in his annual recommended reading list, is the kind of thing any writer dreams about as a kid. But Benjamín Labatut isn’t just any writer. Nor, at 42 years old, is he still a kid. A reluctant public figure, the author of When We Cease to Understand the World (Pushkin Press)—Un verdor terrible in the original Spanish edition published by Anagrama—professes to being overwhelmed by the avalanche of positive reviews his book has received.
When asked in an interview with the BBC what he thought about the ex-president’s choice, Labatut replied: “He made me famous in my country, with one tweet. But I don’t particularly like being recognised.” After declaring himself stunned, he continued: “I don’t get dazzled by power, nor do I tend to deify people because they have held an office. Also, I’m not American, I’m Chilean, so I don’t feel an emotional attachment to any ex-president from that country (…). Obama is a special being, that’s undeniable, but I think the best you can do with these things is not take them too seriously. For my own sanity, I prefer to believe that the list was compiled byone of his advisors.”
Direct, frank, and by no means diplomatic, were he to have been born in the United States—and opted for verse instead of prose—Labatut would never have made it to poet laureate. But he was born in Rotterdam and lived in The Hague, Buenos Aires, and Lima before settling, at 14 years old, in Chile, where he studied journalism, an activity that led to experiences he would soon take advantage of in his literature. His first book, La Antártica empieza aquí, came out in Mexico in 2010, where it won the Premio Caza de Letras, the prize for which included co-publication by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and Alfaguara, the press that would publish him in Chile two years later. Not much happened with that first book, it must be said, neither in terms of critical reception nor readership, though it did receive the Premio Municipal de Literatura de Santiago. Today,we can get a clear sense of how left-field Labatut’s literature must have seemed within its milieu. The seven stories in La Antártica empieza aquí did not fit intothe predominant realism of Chilean narrative of the time. In the first story, which gives the collection its title, a young journalist tracks the footprints of a Chilean Nazi poet and soldier who led a doomed expedition to the frozen continent. The hazy figure of the writer, the supposed verses he left behind, and, above all, the deep mistrust awakened in the narrator by the only witness to his actions seem to allude to the ambiguous fascination wielded over Chilean literature by writers such as Miguel Serrano (1917-2009), something not even Roberto Bolaño could escape: his fourth book of fiction, Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), constitutes a small gallery of apocryphal tales which are as close to aesthetic banality as they are horror, with something similar taking place in Distant Star, a novella published in the same year.
“Bolaño does matter, by god he matters,” Labatut acknowledged in a recent interview for El Cultural. His first book, in fact, is very Bolañian, and perhaps this influenced its tepid reception. Many saw its author as some kind of disciple, which was a mistake. There is in Labatut’s first stories a greater insistence on anomaly, illness and, above all, madness, or rather the threat of madness, a theme that concerns the author personally (a result of his family history, as he has explained on more than one occasion).
It is unsurprising that his second book, Después de la luz (Hueders, 2016), opens with the narrator recalling a moment in his life that was marked by insomnia and an “intense feeling of unreality” that plunged him into a crisis. In the light of these recollections, he starts linking togethera series of fragments in the book, sometimes no more than a handful of lines, with no strong causal relation, but rather an association of ideas concerning what science has been able to establish about the origin of the universe and of life. These discoveries mix in the text with symbolisms drawn from various religious traditions, ancestral cosmovisions, mystic rites, once-neglected writers and esoteric beliefs such as alchemy, from which the book derives its division into three parts, corresponding to the transformations of matter: nigredo (blackness), albedo (whiteness), and rubedo (redness). The book thus constitutes a captivating cabinet of curiosities with great evocative power, which demands a slow and reflective reading, not because of the complexity of its prose, which is of a gentle transparency both in terms of syntax and lexis, but rather due to the density of its images, the majority disquieting. From the microcosm to the macrocosm, from the cellular plane to the astrophysical one, there is a dark zone which harbours the threat of disorder, chaos, and the inconceivable.
In that sense, When We Cease to Understand the World (2020) is not a turning pointin Labatut’s literary project. It marks a continued deepening of these ideas, while organising them in a different way. There is greater narrative cohesion, less fragmentation, although the ambiguity surrounding the genre of the four texts that make up the book persists. Some critics have classified them as essays (Camilo Marks), others have seen in them “four linked but autonomous chapters and an epilogue” (Nadal Suau), while John Banville has referred to the work as a “nonfiction novel.” We can assume this term follows the meaning ascribed in recent years by authors like Emmanuel Carrère and Éric Vuillard, with whom Labatut, of course, has points of contact, such as his obsession with Philip K. Dick, shared with the former, and the composition of storiesbased on pivotal episodes in history, though not necessarily the most famous ones, a practice honed to perfection by Sebald in On the Natural History of Destruction. Labatut himself has attempted to addressthe insecurity surrounding the status of his texts in the “Acknowledgments” that appear at the end of When We Cease to Understand the World: “This is a work of fiction based on real events. The quantity of fiction grows throughout the book.” In an interview with Roberto Careaga, the author specifies: “It’s a book composed of an essay (which is not chemically pure), two stories that try not to be stories, and a novella.”
Irrespective of thecredibility we can afford to an author’s declarations about his own work, Labatut appears to be playing with the possibility of transferring to the narrative the uncertainty of the world of subatomic particles, which he maps out brilliantly in “When We Cease to Understand the World,” the novella mentioned by the author and perhaps the most accomplished section of the book, along with the opening text, “Prussian Blue.” The rivalry between Schrödinger and Heisenberg sets the stage for a debate over the possibility of the existence of a relatively solid and predictable order and the definitive triumph of randomness and chaos, options that are both expressed through the seemingly neutral language of mathematics. The interesting thing is that, despite holding opposing positions, both physicists arrive at a decisive “epiphany” in their respective investigations—in Labatut’s version, at least—after experiencing altered states of consciousness. Through the use of psychotropic substances, in Heisenberg’s case, following a chance encounter with Walter Benjamin in a Copenhagen bar; an obviousanachronism with a hint of plausibility, given that, though ten years apart, both men did spend time in Denmark. Schrödinger, for his part, develops his theory during his convalescence at a sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers in the Swiss Alps. His formula (“one of the strangest and most powerful equations that the human mind has ever created”) is the fruit of hours of work in which the physicist loses his sense of time: a revelation that is followed by bouts of fever and a sickly obsession with the teenage daughter of the doctor in charge of the clinic where he is recovering, if a discreet and respectable hospice can be referred to in this way, reminiscent of the isolated sanatorium in Davos where Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain is set.
The exploration of the relationship between evil and science has found fertile ground in the history of Germany during the first half of the 20th century. Benjamín Labatut visits the same accursedcastle as Jorge Volpi (In Search of Klingsor) but avoids the most well-trodden corridors. This is particularly true in texts such as “Schwarzschild’s Singularity,” about the physicist, astronomer, and mathematician who enlisted as a volunteer in the German army during the First World War and, from the trenches, sent Einstein a letter in which he resolved the equations of his theory of general relativity, published in November 1915. An exact solution, which describes how the mass of a star deforms the space and time surrounding it until it creates a rupture: an abyss, a blind spot, lightless, unknowable, in which the mathematics of Einstein’s theory lose their validity. They called this the Schwarzschild singularity. A mathematical anomaly or aberration that obsessed the scientist at the same time as an illness consumed his entire body, covering it in blisters and abscesses. But physical pain is nothing compared to the metaphysical suffering that tormented Schwarzschild shortly before he died: “If matter were prone to birthing monsters of this kind, (…) were there correlations with the human psyche? Could a sufficient concentration of human will—millions of people exploited for a single end with their minds compressed into the same psychic space—unleash something comparable to the singularity?” Twenty years later, physics and history would confirm both fears.
The apprehensionsof greatmen of science who revolutionised their fields only to retreat, in horror, after witnessing the consequences of their discoveries is a theme thatreappears in “The Heart of the Heart,” about the Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochikuzi and his relationship with Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014). This stateless mathematician, of Russian and German descent but naturalised French, achieved global recognition for his research into the concept of motive, capable of “illuminating every incarnation of a mathematical object,” according to Labatut’s explanation. “The heart of the heart,” in the words of Grothendieck himself, who abandoned his research at the pinnacle of his career, distancing himself from the mathematical community and walking out on his family, to found a small commune and dedicate himself to ecology, later withdrawingto tiny villages in the south of France, where he ended up living like a hermit. According to a North American mathematician who was able to speak to him during his final years, Grothendeick claimed he had lost all interest in numbers and avoided human beings in order to protect them. “Grothendeick said that no one should suffer from his discovery,” writes Labatut. Without explaining what he was referring to, he spoke of “l’ombre d’une nouvelle horreur” (“the shadow of a new horror”).
A nameless threat seems to lie just around the corner in every one of Labatut’s texts. Lurkingin the hope of finding a fissure which, very often, science opens up for it by mere chance. In “Prussian Blue,” the Chilean author reconstructs the unsuspected chemical trail that led from the accidental discovery, at the beginning of the 18th century, of a synthetic pigment that revolutionised painting to the industrial fabrication of the gas used by the Nazis in their extermination camps. A German researcher of Jewish descent played a central role in these events. In 1907, Fritz Haber became the first scientist to harvest nitrogen directly from the air for the creation of fertilisers at a perilous moment for agriculture, revolutionising global food production. His method earned him a Nobel Prize. This same Haber orchestrated the use of chlorine gas during the First World War, resulting in a horrendous death for thousands of soldiers. After the conflict, he created the cyanide-based substance used to produce a gaseous pesticide he baptised Zyklon. It did not take long for its rapid effectiveness in the elimination of pests to be demonstrated. Haber died in 1934, with no inkling of the terrible fate, only a few years later, of the toxin he had helped create.
“The Night Gardener,” included at the end of the book as its “Epilogue,” is the text closest in form to the kind of traditional short story practised by the author in his first book. It is set in a Chilean mountain town, quiet but not bucolic: its forests were decimated by a fire and someone has been poisoning dogs with cyanidefor years. The narrator meets a neighbour who is gardening in the dead of night, because, he assures him, this is the best time to do it, as the plants are asleep. One day, the gardener talks to him about Fritz Haber; another, he reveals that he himself began a brilliant career in mathematics, only to renounce it after discovering the work of Alexander Grothendieck. The plot retraces all of the book’s motifs, like the corollary to a theorem.
Translated into over twenty languages, the impact of When We Cease to Understand the World was so great that the author felt the need to publish the short essay The Stone of Madness (2021), in which he draws links between Bosch’s painting and the writings of H. P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick. A small treatisethat functions, above all, as a footnoteto his own body of work: “In 2020, I published a book called When We Cease to Understand the World, in which I followed some of the threads that form the network of associations, ideas and discoveries that gave rise to modern chemistry, physics and mathematics, because these disciplines—along with the sudden explosionin communications, biology and computing—form the basis of our current cosmovision.” In the first part of the book, Labatut links the inability to understand the world and reality with events that led to the mass protests that took place in Chile toward the end of 2019. It is a valuable text but, in literary terms, adds nothing new to what he has already said before. In the second part, the author settles scoreswith the strange readers attracted by the discourse on madness in his books, focusing on a supposed exchange of paranoid messages sent to him by a woman. Imperceptibly, the essay shifts into short story, or, at least, into a terrain contiguous with fiction. It is undoubtedly the zone in which Labatut’s writing operates best.
Pedro Pablo Guerrero