Monday, February 18, 2013

Review of In Search of Klingsor by Jorgi Volpi (1999 Spanish, 2004 Fourth Estate)

Francis X Bacon is a promising physicist in pre-war America.  After a stellar undergraduate degree he’s taken on at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, working alongside such greats as Einstein and von Neumann.  After a couple of indiscretions it’s suggested that he transfer to the US Army to work on science-related research.  The war is now well underway and Bacon’s job is to help compile dossiers on Germany’s leading scientists.  After the D-Day landings in Normandy he is shipped to the continent, working in a team hunting down physicists working on the German atomic programme.  In the immediate post-war period he’s given the task of identifying ‘Klingsor’, the codename for supposedly the most senior scientist in the Nazi regime, responsible for allocating funds and resources to different programmes.  To aid him in his task he recruits Professor Gustav Links, a mathematician and conspirator in the attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944.  Through a twist of fate, Links had survived the purges that followed.  Together, Bacon and Links try to uncover the identity of Klingsor travelling to interview such luminaries as Planck, Heisenberg, Bohr and Schrodinger, but each time they seem to draw close they are cast into smoke and mirrors.

In Search of Klingsor is, in many ways, a remarkable book.  It is full of science, philosophy, metaphysics and the great personalities of early twentieth century physics.  It not only binds together the story arc with historical episodes and explanations of atomic science and game theory, it uses the principles of the latter as narrative devices.  For example, the entire tale is an illustration of game theory and uncertainty.  The telling of Bacon’s life story and his encounters with the various scientists is well executed, with the personalities and histories of the latter vividly bought to life.  Indeed, the story is rich in detail and for the most part cleverly and engagingly constructed, and the book is clearly based on extensive research.  There is, however, a weakness in the structure.  The telling is divided into three parts.  If Volpi had found a way to conclude the story after the second part I have little doubt this would be one of my reads of the year.  It really was a masterpiece up until this point.  The third part, however, shifted focus to concentrate on Gustav Links, with the style and pace altering, and more problematically, it little advanced the story with regards to the search for Klingsor.  It worked to take the wind out of the sails of what had been a thoroughly compelling yarn and also led to some loose ends, not least with respect to Bacon, creating somewhat of a weak conclusion.  Nonetheless, the first 300 pages of this book were excellent; it was just a shame that the final 100 pages didn’t quite match them.  Overall, if you’re interested in twentieth century physics and the German atomic programme, this is a fascinating and entertaining read.

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