If one is afraid of something, then it is the wisest to measure it.
Daniel Kehlmann: Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World), Rowohlt: 2005.
(As I only had the German original at hand, the quotations below were translated to English by me. The “official” English translation of Carol Brown Janeway is obviously much more recommendable!)
The first impression is that of shuddering amazement, like at the sight of the prepared wonders of a cabinet de curiosités. However, instead of exotic animals the author prepared here two exotic persons with the greatest care, Gauss, the mathematician and Humboldt, the scientist-explorer. Their figures are so autistic and inhuman that we cannot but watch them in amazement as they break ahead as straight as an arrow toward their objective, the measuring of the world.
Even the genre is well chosen to impress us, the hagiography of child prodigy, in which the scientist, just like the magician protagonist of the previous novel of Kehlmann, The Beerholm illusion, does miracles in row without any effort, in a glance pulling out of the nothing new laws, planets and continents.
And then the stories. The big story unfolds itself through several small, laconic stories, each with its own structure, rhythm and depth, as if the Hassidic stories of Buber had been stringed up into a novel.
And these stories hold together into an unpredictable, magic world. Where accidental is necessary, things form invisible connections, and the ones belonging together must meet again and again in the most unexpected places. Where a jungle of palm trees and lians grow in a neglected garden of Northern Germany. Where the dead send messages to the living, the rivers flow uphill, and in the middle of the jungle a lonely Saxon traveler pops up who, having informed the discoverers about the exact population of his native village back in Germany and about the height of the church tower measured in feet, disappears again. The wonders sometimes swell up to the point of breaking the texture of the action, and when we later find our way back again, none of the actors remember how they had got rid of the trouble. In this world the most realistic figures are those four oarsmen on the Amazonas who incessantly treat each other with marvellous stories about speaking fishes and winged dwarfish dogs, and in whose figures Kehlmann surely erected a worthy monument to the great masters of Southern American magic realism, so dear to his heart.
Mario asked Humboldt to tell a story, he too.
He does not know any stories, said Humboldt and he straightened his hat which had been turned by the monkey. And he does not even like storytelling. But he can tell the most beautiful German poem in a free Spanish translation. Above the hilltops there is silence, between the trees no wind is felt, birds are silent, too, and you will die soon, don’t worry.
Everyone looked at him.
Ready, said Humboldt.
Pardon, asked Bonpland.
Humboldt reached for the sextant.
Excuse, said Julio. It is not possible that this is everything.
Of course it is no bloody story with wars and transformations, said Humbold with irritation. It has no magic, nobody is changed into a plant, nobody can fly and they do not eat each other.
During the day the hours merged; the Sun glowed fiery above the river, it was a pain to look at it. The mosquitos were attacking from every side, even the oarsmen were too tired to speak. A metal disk followed them for a while, flying before them and then behind them again, silently gliding on the sky, disappearing and then appearing again, for some minutes coming so close that Humboldt could discern with the telescope on its bright surface the distorted mirror image of the river, the boat and himself. Then the disk dashed away and it did not return any more.
It is no wonder that in such a world Gauss and Humboldt are so obsessed to find order that they sacrifice every human connection for it. The real life is going on around them, and its actors often turn to them with love, but only very rarely a little bit of this love gets through into their closed world: a dog, a prostitute, an old tre. And moreover, even when the malcontent Gauss meets God himself, he lets the chance go, because this scene does not fit to the order imagined by him. God, if he exists at all, should exist above the laws moving the world, not inside this chaotic world, as an old count in a neglected German garden.
But in such a world they cannot find order. The more they investigate it, the more they have to realize that laws fail, space becomes bent, time slows down, the sum of the angles of star triangles is more than a hundred and eighty degrees, and parallels meet in the infinite.
And then the structure. Nowadays we adore good structures. Recently it was enough to begin a novel like “In a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not want to remember, there lived a gentleman,” and then the stories followed each other from the birth of the hero until his death. We also love the strings of stories, perhaps this is what we love the most. But it is required that they do not follow each other in the form of linear narrative. And Kehlmann, just like the magician of The Beerholm Illusion, meets this Postmodern claim with precisely elaborated, exhaustively practiced and always succesful formulas. The story begins at the end, when Humboldt and Gauss meet each other at the 1828 Berlin conference, for the first and for the last time. Only then their parallel lives begin. From chapter to chapter we watch the one and then the other being born, growing up, studying, reaching their first results. They get to know about each other, monitor each other’s way, they are slowly nearing to each other. At the end we get to the beginning. Humboldt and Gauss meet each other at the 1828 Berlin conference. And yet they do not meet. Because if until then everything was about their similarities, this occasion brings forth their differences.
Plans, blasted Gauss. Chatter, plans, intrigues. Verbosity with ten princes and hundred academies until one can finally set up a barometer somewhere. This is no science.
Oh, shouted Humboldt, then what is science?
Gauss had a suck at his pipe. A man alone at his desk. Paper in front of him, eventually a telescope, and the clear sky in front of the window. If this man does not give up before understanding it. This is perhaps science.
And if this man takes up travelling?
Gauss shrugged his shoulder. Whatever is hidden in the distance, in holes, volcanos or mines, is accidental and is not important. The world cannot be understood better in this way.
They only get really close to each other when they do not see each other any more. From the distance they continue each other’s trains of thoughts, reply to each other’s questions, dream each other’s dreams. Perhaps they would really meet in the infinite.
All the other figures of the novel also run on parallel courses. Humboldt and his brother, the scientist and the philologist, childhood rivals, fire and water. Bonpland and Humboldt, the two fellow travelers, the Frenchman and the German. Humboldt and his Spanish classmate Andreas del Rio, who saves his life at the school of mining, and whose life is broken by him with a cold rational report. Cold-headed Gauss and his hated warm-hearted son Eugen who only at the end of the novel, having detached himself from his father and started the way of Humboldt can begin to think with the intellect of his father. All of them make sometimes great efforts to meet the other, but this can hardly happen. As if the parallel courses were stronger than them.
His father, whenever said a word, was complaining or giving commands. A German, he often said, never sits bowed. Once Gauss asked: Is this all? Is this enough to be a German? His father was thinking so long that he could hardly believe it. Then he nodded.
The Zar slung the over Humboldt’s shoulder, cries of vivat and bravo arose, and Humboldt made efforts not to stand bowed.
This novel is also about what it means to be German. Much more than it would look at the first glance. Not only because it is about two giants of German spirit. For, in fact, it is not so much about them.
Daniel Kehlmann speaks about this aspect at the request of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung like this:
Humboldt is the representative of Weimar Classicism, the only Weimar Classicist who was really sent out as a representative of Weimar Classicism, and who went with this spirit to Macondo. At the time when I wrote this novel I was strongly under the influence of Southern American literature, and in the same time I felt that as a German author I cannot avail of several emotional and artistic opportunities of these authors. One feels of having come from another culture and although he can play with the possibilities of this one, but only in a different way. Then I suddenly felt that Humboldt is my key, who entered this world, but entered it as a German.
This novel is a satyrical and playful account with what it means to be a German. And obviously also with what we can call without any irony the German high culture. To me this is one of the main themes of the novel. As Andreas Maier formulated so beautifully in the introduction to the audio book: “the high German Geistesgeschichte, a unique form of incapability of living.” However, in the wide reception of the novel this theme spectacularly got lost.
Seen from our side, from outside and to the east from Germany, it seems that the most German problem of the novel is the one which is in the same time the most human. Like probably in every novel about national character, if it is a good novel. And this problem which we face again and again when staying among Germans and when reading German literature, is nothing else than the above central question of the novel: Can one open himself to the other without having to give up himself? Can the parallels meet each other?