The second book from German author Julie Zeh is a heady and philosophical detective thriller, fleshed out with particle theory, quantum physics, and the nature of existence, time, the past and the future. And what part does coincidence play in our daily lives? If this seems like a bit much, it’s not. It’s smart, clever and nicely constructed. And I love the way Ms. Zeh writes. She never overwhelms the reader with physics theory and it never gets in the way of the story arc. Yet the theories are an integral part of the novel.
It’s also the story of two life long close friends, and rivals in their chosen profession. As foils to them, there are two detectives: one nearing the end of his career (Detective Superintendent Schilf) and the detective who he had mentored, Rita Skura. The novel includes two love stories, and possibly a third. All of this seems quite effortless for Ms. Zeh.
The characters are almost always fascinating, even the glimpses we get of minor ones. Sebastian has opted for love, fatherhood and family, and consequently a reduced role in the challenging field of quantum physics. His friend Oskar has kept to the course, and feels that Sebastian has compromised his intellect. Sebastian may admit that Oskar was always the more driven one, and this may have had something to do with his decision to teach (rather than research), write pop-sci magazine pieces, and have a family life. His wife Maike and he are deeply in love. Oskar is in love only with his work, excepting Sebastian.
The chief investigative mover is Schilf (the novel was originally entitled Schilf in German). He has moved on from Friebourg, where he mentored Rita Skura. As a student she was unsure of herself, self-conscious and tentative. Schilf took her aside early on and advised her to follow the opposite of her instincts. Sounds like a George Costanza moment, no? This advice has done well by Rita’s career, who is now recognized as a brilliant, and successful detective, at least on the professional level. Personally, the people she works with either fear or dislike her. Except her one trusted underling, a young detective who admires and has fantasies about Rita. Schilf’s own view of detective work can be summed up with this passage;
The investigator does his work behind a glass wall…Other people’s lives are like his own past to him: he can look at them, but not enter them, and it is always too late to change things.
When a medical scandal breaks out at the hospital in Friebourg which carries political overtones, and Rita is not quick enough to wrap up the investigation, Schilf is recalled from his current position, much to the chagrin of Rita. Schilf’s life has just dramatically changed in two ways. He has fallen in love with Julia, a younger woman, age about 4o years, who is a fascinating portrait: a woman who was a body model for her entire adult life, with the ability to sit perfectly still for hours. She has a serenity that is a perfect fit for Schilf. Instinctively, she has latched on to Schilf and theirs is a union as happy as that of Sebastian and Maike. But Schilf has also just been given a death sentence and has somewhere between 2 weeks and several months to live. I had known nothing about this ‘condition’ when I started reading it. So it came as a shock to my system you see, as I’ve been living with the same disease for 20 months or so now. I’ve included the relevant passage here, in a June 13th ‘Letter to Glio‘.
I’ll give no more of the plot away, but it does involve kidnapping, blackmail, coincidences and misunderstandings, parallel universes (the many worlds theory) and a murder. Some of it is “reaL” and some of it is not. “Real”. There’s the rub.
An early indication of how this will go is the opening part of Chapter 3, which we take for the murder. Soon, we find it is not. It is a dream murder. Or one of many possible murders. One of many possible unfolding of events. One of many – an unlimited amount – possible worlds and futures. Sebastian hides in the shadows, watching the house of his intended victim. As an example of Ms. Zeh’s style, this is wonderfully atmospheric:
…night has fallen, and Sebastian has spent the time since looking at the flickering windows of the apartments next door. At least three living rooms are watching the same film. There was a fire a little while ago, and then a shoot-out. And now the murderer is taking his time explaining to his final victim the meaning of the plot so far. There follows the hectic flicker of hand-to-hand fighting, interrupted by the colorful flash of an advertisement break. Sebastian thinks he knows who the murderer is…
From the long spells of pale light shining through the windows, Sebastian can tell that the neighbors are now watching the late evening news…
Skipping to the end of this 3-page sequence, Sebastian imagines himself carrying out the murder with a spade from the victims toolshed.
The televisions flicker luridly. Sebastian hears screams, shots, and the anxious whining of American police sirens. The reflections from the screens reach into the garden and move over the front of the house. The flickering takes on a regular rhythm – a blue light circling nearer and nearer. The air smells of freshly cut grass.
There are many such passages that are not really events that occur (as we understand them), but could have occurred in this way. Or did occur in another world (there are many) in Sebastian’s view. These passages also act as a distancing from events. Because of Schilf’s brain tumor, he has spells and becomes disoriented. He carries on an inner dialogue with himself (the observer) which has the effect of a meta-fiction in his head.
‘Betrayal weighs heavy, the detective thought’, the detective thinks.
I found these asides (there are many) quite inventive. When he thinks this to himself, he is thinking about the fact that he has never told his girlfriend that he has a fatal disease. But it’s in the nature of their relationship.
I have not asked her about her past. She doesn’t ask me about my future. And that’s what you call a deal. Sleep and death have this in common: they offer only single rooms. You can’t take anyone with you.
Schilf’s investigation is as much about solving the puzzle of the crime as it is an investigation into philosophical matters. In his investigation, Schilf has several conversations with Sebastian, and finds a person that he likes, a kindred spirit. Sebastian’s lectures on time and waiting are the basis for these dialogues. We all spend our lives waiting for one thing or another. TIme passes as we wait, so that waiting turns out to be a dialogue with time. In waiting, the present moment never exists. Trying to grasp the connection between past and future is like grasping the foam in the ocean. Between the past and the future, there is no present to intercede. One of my running jokes as a kid was to say (and I don’t know where I got this) is that tomorrow never comes, because when “it” does, it’s today. I thought I was really clever with this mantra!
And finally, we are waiting for death.
Life consists of waiting; waiting is what we call “life.” Waiting is the present. Man’s relationship to time. Waiting sketches the silhouette of God on the wall. Waiting…is the stage of transition that we call our existence.
Part 4 of Chapter 5 is a seven page exploration (which I won’t excerpt here) of materialism as it relates to matter, and consequently time and space – and thus the Many-Worlds Interpretation of the universe. And ultimately the recurring motif of coincidence as represented by branches of a tree seen above the surface of the water that may or may not be connected.
Schilf himself has a wonderful perspective on aging and death. At a certain point we all realize that our bodies are not what they used to be. Sometimes I’ve called this bodies in revolt. The body tires of life before “we” do. Or sometimes (and here I think of my parents – my father nearing 100 and my mother entering her 90’s) the body hangs on past the point where existence hardly seems worth the effort.
Aging is above all a continuing rendezvous with one’s own body, a dialogue with pipes, filters, hinges, and pumps that have been doing their work behind the scenes for years, but now suddenly impinge on the consciousness with their demands for attention.
Zeh can be funny-serious as well. Here she tosses this in, almost as an aside, but funny and relevant:
“ARE YOU STILL THERE? Can you hear me? Damn.”
Smiling, the detective shakes his head and stretches his spine until he hears a crack. Two rows behind him, someone is furiously pressing the keys of a mobile phone. The advent of the mobile has finally given human beings a means of expressing their metaphysical isolation and their deep-seated doubt about the existence of other life-forms. Can you hear me? Are you there? Who could claim with any certainty that the other person was really there and could hear you speaking?
After 50-60 pages or so, I was sure that this would be (to this point) the best book I’d read all year. It faltered slightly – but only slightly – and I’d not only highly recommend this one, I’ll definitely get her debut novel Eagles and Angels. You’re in for a treat if you read this one.