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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

When We Cease to
Understand the World

Benjamín Labatut

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To purchase When We Cease to Understand the World

Title: When We Cease to Understand the World
Author: Benjamín Labatut
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 188 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: When We Cease to Understand the World - US
Un verdor terrible - US
When We Cease to Understand the World - UK
When We Cease to Understand the World - Canada
Lumières aveugles - France
Das blinde Licht - Deutschland
Quando abbiamo smesso di capire il mondo - Italia
Un verdor terrible - España
directly from: New York Review Books
  • Spanish title: Un verdor terrible
  • Translated by Adrian Nathan West

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating life-stories, though working less well as the work drifts into fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 10/9/2020 John Banville
Le Monde diplo. . 2/2021 Bernard Daguerre
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/9/2021 C. da Fonseca-Wollheim
The New Yorker . 13/9/2021 Ruth Franklin
El País . 25/9/2020 J.Ernesto Ayala-Dip
Sunday Times . 4/10/2020 Claire Lowdon
Wall St. Journal . 24/9/2021 Sam Sacks
Die Zeit . 30/7/2020 Leander F. Badur

  From the Reviews:
  • "One of the most impressive aspects of the book is the wonderfully intricate web of associations that it weaves. (...) Labatut has written a dystopian nonfiction novel set not in the future but in the present. Has modern science and its engine, mathematics, in its drive towards "the heart of the heart", already assured our destruction ?" - John Banville, The Guardian

  • "Dans un style si précis qu’il atteint souvent, par sa concision même, un humour cruel et contenu, le récit dévide ensuite, boucle sans fin et digressions, la liste impressionnante de mathématiciens, astronomes et physiciens célèbres du XXe siècle, voire du début du XXIe, qui analysèrent différents problèmes de notre espace-temps rendu incertain par la relativité d’Albert Einstein et la mécanique quantique." - Bernard Daguerre, Le Monde diplomatique

  • "(A) gripping meditation on knowledge and hubris (.....) Labatut, a Chilean novelist born in 1980 in the Netherlands, casts the flickering light of Gothic fiction on 20th-century science. In five free-floating vignettes, he illuminates the kinship of knowledge and destruction, brilliance and madness. (...) In any case, the individual characters are merely vehicles for Labatut. His true subject is the ecstasy of scientific discovery and the price it exacts" - Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(I)t is as compact and potent as a capsule of cyanide (.....) The stories here circle obsessively around the question of whether some of the twentieth century's greatest minds drove themselves to the brink of insanity -- and, in Labatut's accounts, well beyond it -- in their search for a key to the secrets of the universe. (...) The dividing line between reality and imagination is not marked; it is only after several paragraphs or pages that we realize we have crossed it. (...) There is liberation in the vision of fiction's capabilities that emerges here -- the sheer cunning with which Labatut embellishes and augments reality, as well as the profound pathos he finds in the stories of these men. But there is also something questionable, even nightmarish, about it. If fiction and fact are indistinguishable in any meaningful way, how are we to find language for those things we know to be true ?" - Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker

  • "Labatut enfila el nudo de su novela hacia el momento en que se van larvando las ecuaciones que conducirán al inesperado y casi epifánico final. Esta es una de las posibilidades de lectura de este soberbio libro. (...) Si sabemos cómo funciona una ecuación, Un verdor terrible nos será muy útil. Si no, habremos igualmente disfrutado de un relato magnético." - J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, El País

  • "Was Labatut beschreibt, ist nicht neu, doch wie er es tut, ist bemerkenswert. Seine Stärke ist dabei nicht nur, die an Komplexität kaum zu überbietenden Themen -- Chemie, Physik, Mathematik und Quantenmechanik -- in einer klaren, direkten Sprache verständlich zu erklären. Der eigentliche Kunstgriff besteht darin, dass der Platz, den er der Fiktion in den Geschichten einräumt, im Laufe des Buches zunimmt. (...) Durch den zunehmenden Raum, den Labatut der Fiktion einräumt, gelingt es ihm, eine ästhetische Antwort auf die Frage nach den Grenzen der Erkenntnis zu geben: Wo Ungewissheit herrscht, erwächst der Literatur eine besondere Kraft, Erfahrung dennoch zu ermöglichen." - Leander F. Badur, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       When We Cease to Understand the World is a five-part work, the sections thematically connected and with some overlap. Except for the final piece, all are closely based on historical and biographical fact -- to the extent that, certainly at first, the book seems it could be an essay-collection. In his Acknowledgements author Labatut describes it as: "a work of fiction based on real events", while the Library of Congress Genre/Form Terms cataloging-in-publication data has it simply as: "LCGFT: short stories"; given the connections and commonalities between the pieces it can readily enough also be considered a novel. [Reviewer-note: as longtime readers of this site have surely noticed, I do tend to *see* a novel in practically any text; that is also my default categorization of this work.]
       The indefinitiveness of what the book actually is -- itself also a reflection of its theme -- is seen also in the title of its different editions: the English (and Italian) versions take the title of one (indeed, the longest) of the individual pieces -- much more obvious than the Spanish original, 'Un verdor terrible' ('A terrible verdure'). Meanwhile, The French and German versions are presented as 'Blind Light(s)'.
       In the first piece, 'Prussian Blue', Labatut circles around the work (and life) of Fritz Haber, via, among other things, the discovery of cyanide (Prussic acid) and the wartime uses of poison gas (first on the battlefields, then in the German gas chambers). Almost entirely factual and documentary, it is a tour de force of the horrors mankind is capable of conceiving and inflicting, and also of unintended consequences: Labatut neatly contrasts Haber's terrible work with poison gas and his Nobel-winning work -- "the most important chemical discovery of the twentieth century" --, the process of large-scale ammonia production, which both allowed for the production of much-needed fertilizer but also is used in gunpowder and explosives; it prevented mass famine but also, for example: "allowed the European conflict [World War I] to drag on for two more years, raising the casualties on each side by several millions". In a neat little conclusion, Labatut suggests that ultimately Haber felt most guilty not about the deaths he was responsible for but that: "his method of extracting nitrogen from the air has so altered the natural equilibrium of the planet that he feared the world's future belonged not to mankind but to plants", with the earth doomed to be consumed by the "terrible verdure" of the book's original Spanish title.
       The following pieces are on 'Schwarzschild's Singularity', focused on Karl Schwarzschild and his discovery; 'The Heart of the Heart', centered on the brilliant mathematician Alexander Grothendieck and his unusual life-path; and then 'When We Cease to Understand the World', contrasting Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger's quantum theories -- two very different approaches that nevertheless turned out to be much the same things, mathematically equivalent. These -- and some of the others who figure in these accounts as well, such as Shinichi Mochizuki -- were all men pushing the ways of seeing the world to their extremes, charting new paths and methods in how to interpret the world. The most colorful of these is Grothendieck: Labatut describes a man obsessed who: "continued to push past the limits of abstraction" and whose point of view ultimately was: "so remote that he was only capable of perceiving totality".
       Labatut vividly describes the personal toll their thinking takes on these men, including physical and mental breakdowns of various sorts, the body and the mind pushed to all extremes.
       In the Acknowledgements, Labatut notes:

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 of them.
       So, while the first piece is practically only factual -- so also in its documentary-like presentation --, the ones that follow see Labatut read more into his protagonists, imagining more of their feeling as well as thinking. It's not a smooth transition: Labatut's first piece is, in its unembellished starkness, by far the most effective -- so strong, too, that when he begins the slide down the slippery slope to fiction the missteps are all the more jarring. Suddenly there are bits such as:
Heisenberg's ideas and formulae were exceptionally abstract, philosophically revolutionary, and so dreadfully complex that only a handful of physicists understood how to use them, and even they suffered headaches trying to solve the simplest problems.
       Headaches ? Really ? Surely their struggles could be expressed in a better way.
       We also encounter a Heisenberg when: "A wave of self-pity had begun to well up inside him" (almost making one hope for a wave-particle duality to rear its head ?) or melodrama-dripping bits such as:
Heisenberg had glimpsed a dark nucleus at the heart of things. And if that vision was not true, had all his suffering been in vain ?
       Labatut is in much finer form when he manages to remain more uninvolved, at least until the end. The final chapter, 'The Night Gardener', brings a narrator to the fore, a first-person voice instead of the omniscient one of the previous sections; here, the more -- indeed, almost entirely -- personal take is appropriate enough and there's less to object to; still, it is a considerable departure from what came before and as such a bit of an odd fit (but perhaps the only way he felt he could tie things up and together).
       This final chapter is more (plant-)life focused, beginning with: "a vegetable plague" the narrator is faced with -- echoing the worry about the "terrible verdure" Haber worried about -- and concluding with a description of how citrus trees die (if surviving to the point of natural death), in one final spasm of overabundance.
       The gardener the narrator encounters used to be a mathematician, but abandoned the field, overwhelmed by the work of Grothendieck and the conclusion he drew from it:
that it was mathematics -- not nuclear weapons , computers, biological warfare or our climate Armageddon-- which was changing our world to the point where, in a couple of decades at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant.
       The examples from earlier on are of men who have made approaches to these seeming limits of understanding, often paying a heavy personal price for pushing so hard at these entirely novel ways-of-seeing. Labatut only presents these novel ways of thinking very generally, emphasizing instead how hard they are to grasp and how far beyond much of this was (at the time) even to experts in the fields, and so the work as a whole seems to be more interested in considering the personal human toll of pushing to extremes than what these extremes actually might be. (Ways of seeing the world have, of course, repeatedly been revolutionized -- including also in terms of mathematics -- and the question of whether the advances and ideas his characters obsess over are not merely, in a sense, ahead of their time (i.e. whether or not Grothendieck's insights will not one day come to be seen as everyday and obvious, or Heisenberg's matrices a straightforward tool) remains an open one.)
       With mathematician-turned-gardener -- bringing Candide's retreat to tending his garden to mind -- and the terrible suffering of his genius-protagonists, Labatut can be seen to be suggesting that we shouldn't think big, much less out of the box, because doing so will break us -- individually, as well as humanity as a whole. ('When We Cease to Understand the World' we're better off just backing off and leaving things be ?) As to being overwhelmed by nature -- à la the Haber-feared suffocation of: "all forms of life beneath a terrible verdure" -- his concluding narrator has his doubts, despite that "ancient, crawling evil", the vegetable plague that threatens to: "consume the world" which he opens with, and then the closing warning of how his citrus tree will likely die (going biologically supernova, as it were). Instead, he focuses small(est)-scale, allowing him to: "despair at how slowly my garden grows", and simply decides to see the rest differently:
But trees are very different organisms, and such displays of overripening feel out of character for a plant and more akin to our own species, with its uncontrolled devastating growth.
       Ultimately, When We Cease to Understand the World is rather a mishmash. Labatut writes and presents much of his (often incredible) material very well -- though much better when he avoids the indistinction between fact and fiction and commits completely to one or the other -- and the book is well worth reading simply for the fantastic (but factual) circumstances and amazing lives he chronicles in quick-sketch form. The deeper meaning it's all meant to suggest and illuminate isn't quite as convincingly presented -- though certainly one can make enough of the material to engage with some interesting issues and questions.
       One can understand (and appreciate) that Labatut did not want to pursue and treat this subject-matter simply in essayistic form, but he doesn't make the (hesitant and piecemeal) leap to(wards) the fictional entirely successfully either; certainly it feels like there was a missed opportunity here, in not digging deeper in the facts (and especially the substance) of so much of this cutting-edge thinking. As such, When We Cease to Understand the World is a fascinating but ultimately also somewhat frustrating read -- a gripping, often wild ride, very neatly served up, especially in the first two pieces, that doesn't quite add up. (If, indeed, taken as a collection of stories it arguably doesn't have to, and consequently could be considered more successful, but there's too much overlap and too obviously a larger theme Labatut is concerned with to take the pieces simply on their own.)
       An impressive piece of work, and a good read, but not quite entirely satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 September 2021

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When We Cease to Understand the World: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author Benjamín Labatut was born in 1980.

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© 2021 the complete review

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