There are books that you don’t really know why you like. There are also men that you don’t really know why you like. I mean yes, they are good books (men), and yes, you enjoyed reading them (spending time with them), and yes the author is talented (….) but still there is nothing particularly impressive about them. At least nothing you can really describe in words. It’s just that gut feeling that this book (man) might be the one.
That is exactly how I felt while reading In Search of Klingsor by Jorge Volpi. I was attracted by the cover first, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was cited (poor translation coming here): “I congratulate the only author who is better than me.” WAIT WHAT? There is someone better than Marquez, I instantly felt my world shaking and my beliefs being torn to pieces. Well I must read this “better than Marquez” guy and see what comes up.
Safe to say, Jorge Volpi is not better than Marquez. But he is still so damn damn good. Don’t ask me why, I can’t say.
The novel tells the story (as the title usefully foreshadows) of the search of Klingsor, the mysterious first hand adviser of Hitler on all scientific matters and possibly the one who oversaw the German attempts to develop a nuclear bomb. Francis Bacon, a physicist by education but a US army agent by necessity arrives in post-war Germany to find out whether Klingsor really existed and to discover evidence on Germany’s progress with the deadliest weapon the world has ever since. On this endeavour he is assisted by the German mathematician Gustav Links, an accomplice in the attempted assassination of Hitler in 1994.
Physics in the story plays a great part and Volpi does a terrific job in explaining in simple and understandable terms something that to most people (including me) sounds like Chinese at the very least . On their investigation, Bacon and Links encounter and interview some of the greatest scientists of this century – Einstein, John von Neumann, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Planck, Stark, and Bohr. Volpi strikes the balance quite well – between their personal lives and their contribution to science; between what makes them human and what makes them great scientists; between the peace and the war; and between the pride that will stem from discovering the nuclear bomb and the realisation that this would kill thousands.
In Search of Klingsor is more than Agatha Christie, who has discovered science, or a modern version of Poirot and Hastings. It is a picture of the role of scientists during and post World War II. Volpi poses the inevitable question: “Is it possible for science to be separated from politics and to exist ignorantly in its own vacuum?” Should scientists deliberaly try to sabotage the development of the nuclear bomb or is it their mission to fight for the development of science? Are they protected because they are doing it for the advancement of science? Are they protected by their profession the same way doctors are protected if they accidentally killed someone. They didn’t mean to, they were doing their job. And they would leave it to the men of power to do theirs.
While searching for Klingsor, Bacon and Links are also searching for themselves. Coming to good terms with their past, living the present whatever they made it, and evaluating the future. Both of them have embarrassments to fight and demons to confront. And while I learnt more and more about Bacon’s inability to love and commit or Links’ unconventional love relationship, I started to think – is this really about that Klingsor fellow. Or is it about searching for something, that may or may not exist, that may or may not give us closure, that may or may not even be what we are looking for. Finding Klingsor may bring both consolation and despair. But yet we keep searching for it, that THING, that is the ultimate and undeniable truth. But even physics is not certain. Things behave both as particles and as waves. All investment bankers are liars. The paradox of Zeno (before you reach X, you must reach 1/2X; hence you will never reach X, since you will always have to travel 1/2 of the distance). Life is not black or white, true or false, wave or a particle. No doubt we may never find Klingsor.
That is why I hate research.
As I said, nothing particularly impressive about In Search of Klingsor. Except for the feeling it gave me while reading it. I can’t even describe it in words and maybe better. Its meaning would be lost when put in something as fleeting as words.