–The first human being from the past we have ever seen. There calm, on the screen. A real woman who really lived two thousand years ago. Where was she going, to market?What was she carrying in her bag? Had she seen Jesus preach?..Then something happened that took Elisa’s breath away. After a new cut the outline appeared in profile the head raised as if she was looking at the camera as if she had seen them all…Her eyes were missing as well as a large part of her face and even like that she seemed to be walking as if she could see perfectly.***
José Carlos Somoza brings to the reader a fiction based on science, and an esoteric thriller rolled into one. I enjoyed the story with some reticence addressed at the end of this post. The story concerns a group of scientists who are eventually brought together on an isolated tropical island to work for a nebulous private group, the Eagle Group, with the scientists and the this group having conflicting targets. The science, based on string theory was introduced at a level that I could follow and that intrigued me, the extrapolation of this theory to the project Zigzag, being able to unfurl a string to see events in the past was captivating.
The question asked by the conflict is if you could see some events in the past, what would you look for? The scientists grouped together are not just physicists but include palaeontologists and historians and in particular historians of christianism. The Eagle Group of course have more military and security type aims, going back to recent times and spying on someone who would not suspect if for instance, but before they can obtain the “tool” there are questions about its safety, an effect labelled “Impact”, the people seeing back in time are left profoundly effected and the scientists are to be the Guinée pigs, and both the scientists and Eagle group have reason to keep the work secret:
–For example if we should see Jesus Christ, Mohammed or Buddha…just see them and know with certitude that it is them… without talking about discovering aspects of the lives of these religious founders that differ from that which the churches of these religions have made millions of people believe for centuries, including some of us, that is motive enough for keeping project Zigzag secret.***
Things go profoundly wrong and the scientists create their own Frankenstein’s monster and one by one over a ten year period meet horrific and unexplainable deaths.
Somoza handles the story in majority in two time periods, 2005 when the book was written and in the near future, 2015. There is a slow ramp up of anxiety and horror as the story progresses and the conclusion is well handled.
The idea behind this story is interesting and this story could be adapted to screen.
I’d like to treat the question of sexism within this book, brought up on forums by a number of readers, through my understanding of Somoza’s treatment of the main female character , Elisa Robledo. For me there are two separate reasons for unease due to the treatment of the female characters in the book, one arguably legitimate as Elisa over the ten years of the book develops from the exceptional student physicist and young adult not caring about herself:
–Her mother wouldn’t let up about the never ending mess in her room. She arrived at the bus station as the coach started up…she was wearing a t shirt with greying shoulder straps and her torn jeans were frayed at the edges. What’s more her hair was clearly dirty …in the last few months she had been under huge pressure.***
Then she develops into the Physics lecturer and caricature of a woman pandering to men’s lust:
–With her magnificent profile shaped by her cardigan and trousers, she could have passed for a student, maybe even for the hostess of an important ceremony….a porn star holding her first Oscar, or as Rafa whispered to his friends on campus: “a mixture of Einstein and Marilyn Monroe”
But anyone paying attention would have noticed that something wasn’t right: Elisa’s face at the beginning, as the lights came on, was different.***
The change in Elisa as we learn is due to her being influenced and controlled by an immature and flawed outside force and her representation as a mutation towards being an object of sexual desire within this framework seems to me legitimate. Although the reference to a porn star by a person from outside of the main story line here is gratuitous and unnecessary.
The treatment of the scientists on the tropical island, sleeping in non air conditioned rooms so that they, in particular the women, are naked or next to naked with spy holes in the doors where anyone on the island can see them, is not necessary for the story and panders to a sexism with which I, as a reader, was uncomfortable.
To conclude on this subject there is I believe a thin line to tread between what is necessary for the development of the storyline (an immature and male manipulator) and cheap sensationalism which the author does not always manage to follow.
First Published in Spanish as “Zigzag” in 2006 by Random House Mondadori.
Translated into French by Marianne Millon as “La Théorie des Cordes” and published by Actes Sud in 2007
Translated into English by Lisa Dillman as “Zigzag” and published by Rayo in 2007
*** My translation