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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Omega Minor

Paul Verhaeghen

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To purchase Omega Minor

Title: Omega Minor
Author: Paul Verhaeghen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 691 pages
Original in: Flemish
Availability: Omega Minor - US
Omega Minor - UK
Omega Minor - Canada
Omega Minor - India
Oméga mineur - France
Omega Minor - Deutschland
  • Flemish title: Omega Minor
  • Translated by the author
  • Awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, 2008

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Our Assessment:

A- : perhaps too many ambitions, for too much of the book, but ultimately audacious enough that it works

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 27/10/2007 Carol McNaughton
The Independent . 11/1/2008 Matt Thorne
New Statesman A- 15/5/2008 Heather Thompson
Publishers Weekly . 3/9/2007 .
TLS A- 30/5/2008 Natasha Lehrer
World Literature Today . 9-12/2005 Ludo Stynen

  From the Reviews:
  • "The first English translation of Paul Verhaegen’s beautiful, poetic novel is almost a masterpiece. (...) Sadly, like much of the existential sex peppered throughout the book, it gets rather absurd by the end." - Carol McNaughton, Financial Times

  • "Although it is always entertaining, and rarely heavy going, there is nothing whimsical about this book. He doesn't skimp on character detail, and is as good as inhabiting the imagination of a woman sexually attracted to neo-Nazis as in depicting competition among aspiring intellectuals. Equally impressive is his depiction of pre-Second World War Berlin, the wartime years and the aftermath. So many authors have already explored similar territory: it's extraordinary that Verhaeghen manages to make his survivor's tale seem original. (...) Omega Minor is undoubtedly a curate's egg, but few recent novels rival its richness. And there is something admirable about an author who challenges not just the structural limitations of the novel, but also the limitations of our understanding of the universe. For all its flaws, this is an uncommonly intellectually stretching -- and satisfying -- experience." - Matt Thorne, The Independent

  • "In this brilliant, improbable mishmash of heart-rending horror and hilarious sex, of Hinduism and theoretical physics, of Greek mythology and conspiracy theory and Hebrew lore, Verhaeghen's dense, dazzling efforts are at once engaging and alienating. In a penultimate coup -- the decisive gesture of a novel that so cleverly explores voyeurism and betrayal -- he shows his hand, exposing a literary deception as canny as any card trick, as callous as any police tip-off. Omega Minor then degenerates into a sort of postmodern, post-apocalyptic romp, racing towards a brash finale that is slightly disappointing but entirely understandable: suspected or not (there are many clues), it would be practically impossible to outdo the earlier disclosure." - Heather Thompson, New Statesman

  • "As De Heer's and Goldfarb's lives further intertwine, the novel strains to tie together loose ends, but the big convoluted twists and outlandish ending may be part of the point. This is an ambitious, epic literary debut" - Publishers Weekly

  • "And if the explosive climax doesn't seem to fit the rest of the novel, that matters less than the fact that Omega Minor is a rare and satisfying example of a contemporary novel, serious, unafraid of its own ambition, and entirely, and happily, berefet of irony." - Natasha Lehrer, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Omega Minor is a weighty, ambitious tome. Set mainly in Berlin in the mid-1990s, much of the novel is devoted to describing the (and -- apparently -- a specific) Jewish experience in the Third Reich, the Manhattan Project (the building and testing of the first atomic bomb), and the building of the Berlin Wall -- among much else. Omega Minor is about history -- the making and the telling of it -- and escaping the past (or finding that it is inescapable). And it's about sex, and guilt and innocence, responsibility and identity, and physics, too. And it turns out to be a thriller, too.
       'Omega' is the cosmological constant proposed by Einstein, and though he disavowed it a character in the book contends it is central to understanding the universe:

Omega is a parameter that is very much needed to describe the universe, and Omega is the biggest riddle of them all. Omega is the parameter that tells us what will happen to the universe, what will happen to us, and there is something seriously wrong with the value of that parameter.
       The parameters of the novel are also decidedly iffy, making for considerable uncertainty as to what hope there might be: what will happen to us, indeed. But Verhaeghen goes looking for the answers with a no-holds-barred approach, making for a hell of a ride that includes some spectacular twists and turns, some clever ideas, some well-presented philosophical and ethical dilemmas -- and more overwrought writing than any reader should ever be subjected to.
       Verhaeghen often gets down to basics, and the most basic thing as far as mankind goes is sex, so there's a lot of sex here. Indeed, the novel begins with a prelude, which begins, of course, with the act, and -- for better and worse -- that gives a proper taste of what is to come. It may well be that the first page is a test: if the reader can swallow this, s/he can probably hold on for another 690 pages and handle the rest (though nausea seem guaranteed, one way or another). So in this opening passage one finds:
A lightning bolt hurls upward in a blinding curve of pristine white, the laws of gravity suspended for a quarter-second. There is a scream of triumph as the gushing garland -- that string of boundless energy -- spouts into the springtime air: With a dull thud the alabaster blob flops on a silken belly, tan and taut and humid with moonlight, and in the panting silence after the victory cry the room echoes with the silent howl of half a billion mouths that never were: 23-chromosome cells thrash their tiny tails in terror on the bare and barren skin. An illicit hand sends another power surge through his penis, fiercer still than the first -- then a compassionate tongue descends, its trembling tip dipping into the basin of his navel
       And then:
her lips slide full over his lingam and the last fruits of her labor slither down her shiny throat. And while the man's mouth is still screaming in triumph, the gametic hordes yell out in Todesangst, for their worst nightmare has come true
       At one point one of the characters experiences a Wagner opera for the first time, and it is presented as a similarly overwhelming experience: Verhaeghen is drawn to Wagnerian totality, and while much of Omega Minor is symphonic even more is operatic: carefully staged, polyphonic (and very noisy), and way, way over the top. Focussing on the pieces -- the lingam-sucking and a thousand other groan-inducing bits -- and the frequent grandiloquent displays it's easy to think much of this is simply silly. But his ambitions are so large -- on Ring-epic scale -- and he manages it well enough that the book ultimately works surprisingly well. As in opera, some suspension of disbelief is necessary -- though where he really gets you is with some surprising displays of subtlety: it's what you don't see coming that gives the book its force (though he almost blows that by how far he goes in his denouement).
       In 1995 Berlin Verhaeghen introduces a variety of characters, including some Neo-Nazis, but the most significant are a Verhaeghen-stand-in, Paul Andermans (yes, basically: 'other-man'), a psychologist from Belgium doing postdoctoral research here, and a man whom he meets in hospital, Jozef De Heer. Both are Dutch-speakers, and Paul volunteers to come visit De Heer after they've been discharged. He offers to read to the old man, but De Heer has something different in mind: he'd like to get his story off his chest, his long story of being a Jewish survivor of the Third Reich in Germany. So eventually Paul takes to coming to visit the old man with his computer and writing down what De Heer recounts.
       Much of the book is taken up by what amounts to De Heer's memoir. One can understand why Paul is riveted: it's a fascinating story as De Heer describes everything he went through, from his family's ill-fated decision to move back to and then remain in Berlin as Hitler consolidated power to the arrest of his parents and his own narrow escape, to a life on the run in war-torn Germany and an underground community that he became part of and that kept him safe almost until the very end, when he was caught and sent to Auschwitz.
       The book explores history and memory, with this survivor-tale as the primary example. De Heer himself is sometimes ambivalent -- and overwhelmed:
     He fumes in silence. Then he explodes. "It is not my obligation, dear sir, to testify. My obligation is to forget. It is a misunderstanding that only living mouths can tell stories and that, just because I am one of the last survivors, it is my duty to get up on stage and speak. That is too much responsibility. That is too much to ask. Besides," says De Heer, "what do I have to say ? I do not believe the myth that society has made out of history. I cannot live up to the sainthood requirement. I hardly feel like any of this was real."
       De Heer's account is compelling -- it's a wild and fantastic ride, even with all the horror -- and Paul is, of course, blinded by the moment, the weight of its authenticity -- he's hearing it first-hand from the man who experienced all this -- limiting his role almost entirely to that of amanuensis. For a psychologist he isn't very insightful about the workings of men's (or women's) minds ...... Eventually he comes to realise (well, he's told) that there's a bit more to De Heer' story:
It's so obvious; I should have realized it so much sooner: De Heer's story is so universal because it is universal.
       Verhaeghen utilizes De Heer's account very well: its 'universality' may dawn on some readers earlier than others (and it will be interesting to see how that affects the readers' appreciation of what he is trying to pull off here), but even after it is entirely clear what De Heer has done the questions remain the same: how is history to be remembered and presented ? who should write the history ? who can be trusted ?
       There's more to the novel, and more to De Heer's account as well: he doesn't end it with the liberation of Auschwitz, but rather describes his choice to live and remain in East Germany, enjoying considerable success as a TV-magician. The most significant occurrence of his life there is the building of the Berlin Wall, and Verhaeghen cleverly makes him part of that story too.
       But there's more, too. The novel has also followed two characters to Los Alamos and the building of the atomic bomb. It seems a bit of a stretch, unconnected to the main threads of the novel which are all tied together in Berlin, but eventually Verhaeghen reels it in.
       Eventually everything comes to a head as pasts catch up to that present. Verhaeghen pushes that as far as he can, and it's pretty damn far: in its conclusion Omega Minor is more airport-thriller than literary-philosophical exercise, and he has a bit of trouble juggling all his ambitions. Still, it is compelling, and if the novel has its occasional longueurs (over its nearly seven hundred pages quite a bit gets drawn out) it rewards the reader with a pace that picks up -- and doesn't stop accelerating until the curtain comes down in pretty spectacular fashion.
       In many ways Omega Minor is a mess of a book, packed to the gills with more than it can handle. (This summary does little more than scratch the surface of a few of the main threads of the novel.) Sometimes Verhaeghen gets carried away by what he can do: for example, the Los Alamos sections are interesting, filled with amusing anecdotes about the secrecy there and the playfulness of the scientists, but too much seems stuffed in simply for the sake of being a good story. One of the things that is so striking about the novel is how, in some senses, unoriginal it is: both De Heer's account of his experiences under the Third Reich and the anecdotes from Los Alamos are more or less familiar, just another version of a history that's been covered from so many angles that there's little more to add, where we've heard it all before and can barely expect anything new. Verhaeghen does subvert that notion -- or at least call it into question, posing the question of what account of history we want or need -- but the inclusion of the Los Alamos-material undermines that a bit because he can't pull off the same trick twice.
       Verhaeghen is much better when he's more speculative, inventing a few bits of history -- though of course one (and perhaps the main) reason he's so successful with these twists is that readers have, by the point these are slowly being revealed, been lulled into thinking they've heard it all before and that history will continue to unfold as they remember it.
       Some of Omega Minor is frustrating, especially the writing style. Verhaeghen is careful to move things along -- Omega Minor is never ponderous -- but his approach, which seems to swing back and forth between steamroller and mystical, is not so much wearing (though that too, occasionally) as cringe-inducing (especially when he can't lay off the sex). There's also a lot of thought in the novel, but this too is packed in tight: there's not nearly enough thought about the thought, as ideas and themes are strewn about so much that they literally litter the text. A lot of this is actually quite exciting, but with his many threads to tie together there are also a lot of smaller loose ends left hanging.
       Omega Minor is far, far from perfect but it is definitely a worthwhile read. It's a book that poses important questions (often in interesting fashion) but doesn't get weighed down by them -- it is, truly, action-packed -- and is the rare ambitiously literary-philosophical work that also works as a thriller (think The Name of the Rose or The Discovery of Heaven). And it'll make a good movie, too.

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Omega Minor: Reviews: Paul Verhaeghen: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Flemish author Paul Verhaeghen was born in 1965. He is a cognitive psychologist and has lived in the US since 1997.

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© 2007-2012 the complete review

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