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Jorge Volpi

Fourth Estate £17.99 (hbk)

Reviewed by Mike Jecks

It’s always daunting to pick up a book which has eulogistic reviews printed on the cover – especially when you haven’t heard of the people who are quoted! (Who is Guillermo Cabrera Infante?)

Still, I was glad of a chance to read this because it’s a story which covers many issues which interest me. First there is the whole matter of the Second World War, and the German development of weapons using modern physics; then there is how the American and other victor nations went about Germany trying to collect as many weapons experts as possible for their own use (Werner von Braun was the American success, the main designer of rockets for the military and NASA for many years); and finally there is the whole history of physics and mathematics which led to the development of nukes.

This book is partly a crime story, set in a kind of thriller, which tries to cover all these different plot strands within a literary novel. Not an easy task.

The beginning is the arrest of one of the narrators, Gustav Links, as a result of the July 20th 1944 coup attempt. A bomb had been set off in Hitler’s briefing room during a meeting, with the intention of killing him and therefore ending the war, but the attack failed, and gradually all the plotters were rounded up. Links was one such person.

From there, it goes to the end of the war, following the life of Frank Bacon, a superb mathematician, who has been taken into the army and has the task of seeking out an elusive man: Kingsor. This man is supposed to have been the brains behind the Reich’s development of weapons of mass destruction, and the Americans want him.

But who could it have been? To learn this, Frank must question his own heroes: Heisenberg, Shroedinger, up to Norway to speak to Niels Bohr, and find Klingsor before anyone else can.

The trouble is, it is set out with the deliberate intention of being literary. OK, that may be fine for reviewers and readers who like that kind of thoughtful, steady and slow buildup to the plot, but for me as a crime writer and reader, I found it hard to cope with chapters such as ‘Laws of Narrative Motion’ and ‘Hypotheses: From Quantum Physics to Espionage’. They slowed down the flow, and did not make the story easier to read.

Still, without them, the whole concept of this book would have been spoiled. And this isn’t a typical crime thriller, it’s a literary novel which happens to cover some aspects of a spy thriller. That means that in the same way that most people who read The Name Of The Rose skipped chunks of descriptions about the carvings on a doorway to a church so as to get to the meat that bit faster, in the same way non-mathematicians and non-physicists will bypass some of the more weird bits of this book. That doesn’t mean that, in the same way that Name Of The Rose was a great read, In Search Of Klingsor will be too, because they are very different, but I have to admit that as a mathematician in my youth, and someone who is interested by the Second World War, I enjoyed it.