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 KehlmannDaniel 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?

The Garden

He thought about the Last Judgement. He did not believe that something like this could ever happen. The accused can set up a defence, some questions might be quite embarrassing to God. Insects, filth, pain. Everything is so imperfect. Even space and time are so slappily created. He thought that if he had to come before tribunal, he would raise some issues.

Some decades pass, and Gauss as a geometer stays for the night in an unknown old provincial castle in Northern Germany. The following morning he has to meet the owner, in order to ask his permission for cutting down some trees on the estate which obstruct the work of land-surveying.

He felt relieved as he found a lattice gate which opened to the garden.

The garden was created with amazing care: palm trees, orchids, orange trees, bizarre-shaped cactuses and
all kinds of plants, such as Gauss has not even seen on pictures. Gravel creaked under his shoes, a lian swept the cap off his head. Some sweetish smell was spreading, flawed fruits were laying on the earth. The vegetation became denser and the road narrower, he had to duck his head as he walked along. What a waste! He could only hope he would at least not meet unknown insects. He creeped through between two palm trunks, but his overcoat got caught and he almost stumbled against a thorn-bush. And then he found himself on a meadow. The count, still negligee, with tousled hair and barefoot, was sitting there in an armchair and having a tea.

Appealing, said Gauss.

It was much more beautiful before, said the count. Nowadays the garden staff is expensive and the French soldiers quartered here also destroyed a lot. He only recently came back. He was in Switzerland as an emigrant, but now the circumstances have changed temporarily. Sir geometer does not want to sit down?

Gauss looked around. There was only one chair, and the count was sitting on it. Not necessarily, he said vaguely.

Well, said the count. Then they can start to negotiate.

It’s mere formailty, said Gauss said. In order to have a free look at the measure point of Scharnhorst, he should cut down three trees in the countly forest and pull down a shed which apparently has been empty for years.

Scharnhorst? There is no person who can see that far!

Oh yes there is, said Gauss, as far as light beams are used. He developed a tool which is able to send flashing signals to an unimaginable distance. By this for the first time the connection between the Earth and the Moon became possible.

The Earth and the Moon, echoed the count.

Gaus nodded smiling. He exactly knew what was now happening inside the skull of the old blockhead.

As far as the trees and the shed are concerned, said the count, they were estimated wrongly. The shed is indispensable. The trees are valuable.

Gauss sighed. He would have liked to sit down. How many of these conversations he had to conduct already! Of course, he said wearily, but let us not go too far. He knows well what is worth those few trees and the hut. In these times the state should not be burdened excessively.

Patriotism, said the count. Interesting. Especially if he is called upon by someone who recently was a French official

Gauss stared at him.

The count sipped into his tea and asked him not to misunderstand him. He does not blame anyone. Times were difficult and everyone behaved as opportunities allowed.

Napoleon, said Gauss, refrained from the bombardment of Göttingen because of him!

The count nodded. He did not appear surprised. Not everyone was so lucky to enjoy the respect of the Corsican.

And almost none had such merits, said Gauss.

The count looked contemplatively into his cup. In any case, sir geometer is not as inexperienced with regard to business as he pretends to be.

Gauss asked how he should understand this.

Sir geometer will presumably pay him with the means of payment accepted in the whole country, won’t he?

Of course, said Gauss.

Then, however, the question arises whether the state reimburses sir geometer for his expenses in gold. For if it is indeed so, then he can realize a pretty exchange profit. One does not have to be a mathematician to notice it.

Gauss turned red.

At least not the so-called prince of mathematicians, said the count, who would certainly not fail to notice it.

Gauss folded his hands behind his back and gazed at the orchids grown on the palm trunks. There is nothing illegal in it, he said.

No doubt, the count said. He is certain that sir geometer looked after it. By the way, he admires very much the work of geometers. It is a strange job to wander back and forth with instruments.

Only if it is practiced in Germany. Whoever does the same in the Cordilleras, is celebrated as a discoverer.

The count shook his head. It must be difficult even so, especially if one has family at home. Sir geometer has a family, doesn’he? Is his wife a brave woman?

Gauss did not answer. The sun appeared too bright to him, the plants annoyed him. He asked whether they could speak about the purchase of the trees. He has to go, his time is limitd.

It cannot be that limited, said the count. If one is the author of the Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, then, in effect, he should not hurry any more.

Gauss looked with shock at the count.

Just do not be so modest, said the count. In all his life he did not read read anything more remarkable than the chapter on the division of the circle. He found some ideas which were illuminative even to him.

Gauss laughed.

Really, really, said the count, he was speaking seriously.

It is surprising, said Gauss, to meet someone here who is interested in such things.

He should rather say knonwledge, the count said. His interest is rather limited. But he always considered it important to enlarge his knowledge even beyond the limits of his interest. And if they are already here: he heard that sir geometer wanted to tell him something.


An old history. Grievances. Annoyances. And moreover a complaint as well.

Gauss rubbed his forehead. It began to be warm. He had no idea what this man was speaking about.

Surely not?

Gauss looked at him without understanding.

If not, then not, said the count. As for the trees, he gives them free of charge.

And the shed?

It also.

But why, asked Gauss, and he got scared of himself. What a silly mistake!

Should always everything be justified? Out of love towards the state, as it can be expected of a citizen of it. Out of appreciation towards sir geometer.

Gaus thanked by bowing. Now he has to leave, his good-for-nothing son is waiting for him, he has to cover the whole distance to Kalbsloh.

The count returned the greeting with a quivering gesture of his narrow hand.

Animal farm

Julia has protested in the comments to the previous post, as I have depicted the olive tree and the feline colony of the Tower of the Souls only in words, without having described them in picture. Well then, here you are some casual photos which, however, desperately require the collaboration of the imagination of the pious Reader.

As we were there the last time, the colony counted some twenty members, and it was already an uncommon sight. But what is this if compared to the immense feline clans of Rome! There, in the middle of the city, among the ruins of the Roman temples excavated in Largo Argentina we have counted more than a hundred of them. And as we kept watching them for almost a year, their number grew even larger. In the middle of one of the busiest junction points of Rome, two meters and two thousand years below the level of the square they were living their own peculiar life, just like some sacred cats of an Egyptian temple forgotten there.

Unfortunately there are no more pictures on the colony of the Torre de ses Ànimes. So let me complete them with some more on the small hermits of the hermitage of Sant Honorat, towards sunset.


La Volta des General

The other beautiful road arrives to Banyalbufar from the north, following the contours of the seashore. “Volta des General” or the Turn of the Governor is actually the name of the hairpin bend formed by the red asphalt road when it starts to descend from the mountains to the little town. It is also marked on the map to the right of the name of Banyalbufar. But as this turn is the point of departure – or arrival – of the seashore pathway commonly called Camí de Baix or Lower Road, thus this latter also inherited the name of Camí de la Volta des General, or simply Volta des General. This road is marked with small hachures on the map.

The “General” was the Marquis Ferran Cotoner i Chacón (1810-1888), a great son of Mallorca who, having fought through the Spanish civil wars of the 19th century, in 1847 became Governor of the Balearic Islands, and in 1863 that of the whole Catalonia. He was the owner of the manor house Sa Baronia in the center of Banyalbufar whose medieval well can be seen at the end of the previous post. Besides several other important historical deeds, he began to build the asphalt road leading towards Esporles which starts with the turn bearing his name, and the Lower Road leading to Port des Canonge was made a comfortable promenade by him as well.

Port des Canonge, that is the Port of the Canon – nobody knows which Canon, but this topic lends a perpetual motion to the literature of local history – consists of a fishing village of some dozens of inhabitants on the shore and a holiday suburb on the steeply rising mountain side. This suburb, as it is preserved in the local memory, was founded in the 60’s by a Hungarian engineer professor called Király. Király – Kirali, as it is pronounced there – was a veritable old style gentleman, an emigrant to the USA in 1945 who, having made a fortune on his several inventions, was the first person to buy a holiday estate here. And as a genuine engineer, he also laid the foundations of the infrastructure of the whole future holiday resort. Wang Wei still knew him and they often visited each other for a glass of Mallorcan wine. But when asked about Budapest, Kirali only told this much: Budapest has passed away.

The path goes on for several kilometers along the olive plantations of the estate of Son Bunyola, dating from Arabic times. Sheep are grazing between the olive trees. In the night their bells are the only voice to be heard together with the breathing of the sea.

The Baroque center of the estate unfolds itself to the eyes only when, turning to the right after the Punta de s’Àguila or the Promontory of the Eagle we slowly leave behind Son Bunyola.

Wild goats are to be met everywhere on the island. They are not even peculiarly touched at the sight of people. Nevertheless, it is not easy to take a picture of them.

Not long after the Escull de Cavall, the Promontory of Horse Skull the characteristic terrace landscape of Banyalbufar begins.

Some kilometers to the west of Banyalbufar – I have improvidently cut it off the map – on a high promontory stands the Torre de ses Ànimes, the Tower of the Souls. The Arabic pirates of Banyalbufar who became peasants kept watching from here for centuries the Arabic pirates nearing from the North African shores. A thousand year old olive tree, reinforced with a stone wall stands near to the tower, with an ancient colony of cats living around it. The quintessence of Mallorca.