Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“When We Cease to Understand the World”: In order of reading book number 2.


Decades before, Zyklon A—a precursor to the poison employed by the Nazis in their concentration camps—had been sprayed on California oranges, as a pesticide, and used to delouse the trains in which tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants hid when entering the United States. The wood of the train cars was stained a beautiful blue, the same colour that can be seen even today on certain bricks at Auschwitz; both hearken to cyanide’s authentic origins as a by-product isolated in 1782 from the first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue.


In this rambling book, Benjamin Labatut brings us in just over 150 years on a rollercoaster ride in sciences from the more or less alchemist days of the mid to late eighteenth century where little more than four elements were known, and with accidental experiments leading to discoveries that soon escaped the hands and minds of the person that discovered them, through to God playing dice, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal.

Labatut chooses to take us from the accidental discovery of Prussian Blue by Jacob Diesbach, useful in dyeing and painting, through the accidental discovery of cyanide by Carl Wilhelm Scheele stirring a pot of Prussian Blue with a spoon coated in traces of sulphuric acid and of Scheele’s death from a painting pigment poisoning, a wonderful green colour used extensively but based on arsenic. And yes as in the opening quote, he links this through to Zyclon A and then Zyclon B.

But how does he get us to Heisenberg and Nils Bohr? Well the first man to derive the exact solution to Einstein’s theory of relativity and thus ultimately predict the existence of Black holes died as a result of being gassed in the first world war trenches.

I’ll stop here, an extremely interesting book, just too much information. Yes I’ve left out huge chunks of subject matter. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

First Published in Spanish as “Un Verdor Terrible” by Anagrama in 2020.
Translated into English by Adrian Nathan West and published as “When We Cease to Understand the World” in 2021 by Pushkin Press.

Stefan Zweig ‘Amok’

-Psychological enigmas exert a kind of chilling influence over me;  I seek with all my heart to understand the relationship between different things, img_0948 and the presence alone of intriguing individuals can unleash in me a desire to understand almost as vital as the passionate desire to possess a woman.***

For German lit month VI, I chose to read two different books with the same title, here Zweig’s Amok and in a separate post, Fitzek’s Amok, both authors treat the title of their book, Zweig explaining the meaning of the word to people maybe unfamiliar with it and Fitzek more precisely giving a recognised definition.

Zweig’s story takes place on an ocean liner with the narrator making the trip back from Calcutta, unable to sleep at night because of the poor cabin he had been able to obtain at the last minute. As he wanders the decks at night he meets a mysterious passenger and the narrator, as the opening quote leads us to understand is curious, and eventually persuades the stranger to relate his story. The stranger begins by explaining to him the concept of Amok:

-Do You know what Amok is?
-Amok?….I think I remember……it’s a kind of intoxication amongst the Malaysians
-Its more than intoxication, it’s madness, a sort of human rage, an inexplicable attack of murderous monomania.***

The stranger explains that eight years previously he had had to leave Germany in shame after  stealing money for a woman and ended up as a doctor in the Malaysian countryside, living alone where he was surviving better than others:

-A European, in a manner of speaking torn apart, when coming from a large city,  arriving in one of those cursed outposts deep in the swamps; sooner or later, they each receive the fatal blow: some drink, others smoke opium others only think of striking out and become brutes.***

The stranger was approaching separation when one day a very proud and haughty white lady drives up close to his house and after making oblique references to her condition, she explains that she is consulting him exactly for the reason that he lives far from the European community and she offers him a considerable sum if he would “care” for her and then leave the country forthwith making contact with anyone. He then understands that he would be required to carry out an “intervention” to restore her to her previous state before her husband, who has been away, gets back on Friday:

-It wasn’t the first time women had asked me to carry out such a service; but they were of a different countenance: they were filled with shame or begged they cried or prayed. But here was one…yes, with an iron, virile resolve…From the first second I had felt that this woman was stronger than I….that she could impose her will as she wanted…but…but…there was also something bad in me…I was like a man who competes, who is annoyed, because..as I’ve already said…from the first moment, yes, even before I saw her, I had felt this woman to be an enemy***

 When at first he refuses she leaves at once, refusing ever to see him again, realising his sudden feelings for her and the error he has made he forgets everything, who and where he is, who and where she is and bent on just one thing, rejoining her, he runs Amok. The story is a tragic one, right up to the very last misfortune, travelling back to Europe on the boat full of guilt with, unintentionally, her husband and her body, bringing us back to the mystery of the opening lines of the book:

-IN MARCH 1912 A STRANGE ACCIDENT occurred in Naples harbour during the unloading of a large ocean-going liner which was reported at length by the newspapers, although in extremely fanciful terms. Although I was a passenger on the Oceania, I did not myself witness this strange incident—

First Published in German as “Der Amokläufer” in the Neue Freie Presse in 1922
Translated into English by Anthea Bell as ‘Amok’ and published by Pushkin press in 2007
Read in French hence *** my translation

Stefan Zweig ‘Twenty four Hours in the Life of a Woman’

Can you trust a drug addict who promises he will stop of his own accord? Should you let him overdose if you think you can save him? What is Zweig’s answer?image

Zweig’s novel set in the French Riviera in the years leading up to the First World War is a book in two parts, the first part, unthinkable in polite society, when in a smart hotel a group of people who meet each evening for their meal and discussions note one day the arrival of a charming young man

‘If a lady went to the cloakroom, he hurried ahead to fetch her coat, for each child he had a friendly smile or an easy word, he was at the same time social yet discreet. In short he seemed to be one of the privileged few who’s fresh gracefulness, by seeming agreeable to those around him, with a smile and youthful charm was a stimulant for the other guests of ‘Le Palais”***

But, of course, he was too good to be true and within a day Henriette, the wife of a rich industrialist had disappeared with him.

‘After all , at a first glance, it was easy to understand that this small ‘Madame Bovary’ should swap her provincial English husband for a handsome distinguished looking young man. But that which most surprised the guests was that neither the industrialist nor his daughters nor his wife had ever seen the man before and that hence an evening conversation of two hours on the terrace and a coffee taken together for one hour in the garden was enough to lead an irreproachable woman, about thirty three years old, to abandon her husband and two children from one day to the next to follow a young beau that she didn’t know.’***

The guests then get into a heated discussion with the narrator defending the woman’s right to follow her instincts, even crossing social norms, against  all of the other guests.

‘For my part I find it far more honest that a woman should follow freely and passionately her instinct rather than, as is generally the case, cheating on her husband by closing her eyes when she is in his arms’***

As the conversation was boiling out of control the oldest and most respected of the guests, an English lady, calms the situation and eventually asks what the narrator would do if she should meet Henritte in society, would she shun her or would she talk to her to which the narrator replies that she hoped she would talk to her. After a great deal of thought the English woman asks if she could see the narrator in private.

Thus ends the first part of the book, the hors d’œuvre , and begins the true subject of the book, the English Lady’s confession.

She tells us how’ many years ago when she was younger’ her life was shaken up in a twenty four hour period. Her husband had died and she found herself bored in Monte Carlo, as her husband had done she went to the casino and at first finding no interest she remembered her husbands tale of watching the gamblers hands and not their faces. Here Zweig treats us to some wonderful descriptions, this one leading up to her meeting with a young man:

‘But then a terrible moment arrived, a moment I had myself feared during this whole time, a moment which was suspended as a storm above my tense and which suddenly caused them to break. Once again the ball had come to rest after a short thud in its round pit. Again that short second beat during which two hundred lips held their breath until the croupier’s voice this time announced zero whilst his rake was already reaching the tinkling coins and the crisp paper on every side. At exactly that moment, the two tensed hands made a particularly frightening movement, they pounced as if to seize something which wasn’t there and then fell away agonisingly to the table being no more than an inert mass, then suddenly coming to life once again running feverishly from there to the body to which they belonged climbed the torso like wildcats, nervously searching in all the pockets, top, bottom, left and right to see if there wasn’t still somewhere a last crumb, a forgotten coin, but always coming back empty, they kept renewing with increased fervour their search for a useful friend whilst the roulette wheel had begun to turn, the game of the others continued.’***

Enough of this example of his descriptive writing and onto the story.

The English lady relates her story of long ago, a story she has not dared to tell anyone to date, she becomes persuaded the man with the hands has fallen into deep despair she follows him as he leaves the casino, she sees he has a revolver and thinks he will kill himself. She watches him and is torn between intervening to save him and her social position:

‘Five times, ten times already I had summoned all my force and I had gone towards him, but my modesty held me back or maybe it was that instinct that deep seated intuition that tells us that someone who is falling often drags down with them those that try to help. In the middle of this hesitation I felt the foolishness and the absurdity of my position.’***

She ends up spending the night with him, in all propriety we are told, he is revealed to be a gambling addict and she eventually talks him into leaving the riviera to get away from temptation and to save his life, she even gives him money for the train. In the mix of her own feelings she even considers leaving and running away with him, but should you trust a gambler to whom you give money?

First Published in German as “Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau” by Leipzig Insel Verlag in 1927
Translated into English by Anthea Bell and published as “Twenty four Hours in the Life of a Woman” by Pushkin Press in 2003
***Read in French, my translation