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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Friday, November 30, 2012

In Search of Klingsor by Jorge Volpi

In Search of Klingsor by Jorge Volpi – In 1946 a young American officer and scientist, Francis Bacon, is assigned to review the testimony of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg for inconsistencies in their evidence. Bacon has been a mathematical prodigy starting to think about algebra when he was 5 and graduating from Yale with an undergraduate degree in physics at 20.

The narrator of the book, Gustav Links, is a talented mathematician who was saved from execution in the People’s Court of Nazi Germany as a conspirator in the attempted assassination of Hitler in 1944 by a bomb killing the judge, Rudolph Fleisler, during his trial.

In examining the evidence from Nuremberg Bacon finds information about a mysterious figure, Klingsor, the pseudonym adopted by a German scientist who decided what scientific war research was conducted for the Nazi regime. Klingsor is an epic pseudonym using the name of a figure from German mythology.

The book has a clever premise as Bacon sets out to find this mysterious mastermind of the WW II German atomic research.

Links serves as Bacon’s advisor and ultimately partner in the search which proceeds at a leisurely pace.

I would have been happier with a shorter back story than the 100 pages it took to reach the start of the search.

The structure of the book is an effort to follow a scientific process of proposing laws and corolloraries and then testing them. An example is:

        LAW II: All men are liars

If, as stated by Godel’s theorem, every axiomatic system contains undecidable propositions; if, as stated by Einstein’s relativity, absolute time and space do not exist; if, as postulated by the rules of quantum physics and as a consequence of the uncertainty principle, science can offer only vague and random approximations of the cosmos – then we can no longer rely on causality as an accurate predictor of the future. And if specific individuals possess only specific truths, then all of us – made up of the same material of which atoms are made – are the result of paradox and impossibility. Our convictions can only be considered half-truths.

It is a book physicists will love. For the rest of us it is slow going for considerable stretches as we learn about the lives and work of Germany’s most prominent physicists prior to and during WW II.

Volpi shows how Nazi ideology interfered with research. The Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg was denied a leading position at the University of Munich after the following attacks upon him:

“In July of 1937, in an unsigned article published in Das Schwarze Korps, you were insultingly referred to as a ‘white Jew’. Stark quickly followed this with a series of articles: ‘Science has failed politically,’ ‘White Jews in Science,’ and ‘The Pragmatic and the Dogmatic Spirit in Physics,’ this last piece published in the English journal Nature.

The book has some intriguing use of scientific terms. The subject of a search is described as elusive as an atom.

It is hard to sustain drama in a search being conducted through interviews of scientists who spend their time either thinking or in labs.

Now physicists do have far more dramatic sexual lives than I anticipated. When not thinking they are constantly active in the bedroom.

The book touches upon some major issues such as whether science is a substitute for religion in a conversation with the great physicist Max Planck:

“Not for a skeptic, because science also requires a spirit that believes. Anyone who has seriously studied a scientific subject knows that there is a sign above the entrance to the temple of science which says You must have faith. Scientists cannot ignore that. Anyone who analyzes a series of results obtained through a scientific experiment must be able to imagine the law he is seeking to prove. Then, he must bring it to life with an intellectual hypothesis.”

In many ways the book sets out in fiction the information contained in Heisenberg’s War which was my previous post on Wednesday.  In my next post on Sunday I will discuss how Volpi changed history to help his story.

The book is very well written. Volpi is a skilled writer. It is a good book for a reader wanting to know about German efforts towards building an atomic bomb without reading a non-fiction account of the program. It would help to have an interest in science.

The following deals with some issues I had with the book. They may be spoilers for some readers:

1.) It took 365 pages to find out why a pseudonym was used rather than Klingsor’s real name;

2.) It took even longer into the book to learn why it was important to find Klingsor; and,

3.) The process of investigation is awkward and unconvincing.

4 comments:

  1. Bill - I'm sorry to hear that there were some things that disappointed you about the book. The premise sounds really interesting (of course I find that part of history fascinating). I may give this one a try despite the reservations you had about it. But I'll wait until I can set aside time to take the book in small doses.

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  2. Margot: the premise drew me to the book. It was interesting to think about big issues in a mystery / thriller but there was precious little to the search.

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  3. Dr. Evangelicus: Thanks for the comment. The plot outside the scientific discussions and historical elements was certainly modest in scope.

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