For the Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut, the books are similar “to the laboratories of mad scientists and alchemists, because they allow you to play with ideas without the need for them to have a rigid correspondence to reality”. One of its most intriguing labs is called A Terrible Green, a book of five stories about scientists, published in April 2020 in Spain by the publisher Anagrama and an editorial phenomenon for an author who was not well known internationally for a short time: it has been translated into 22 languages, and its Spanish version is in the ninth edition. Its English version, in particular, was nominated this year for the most important awards in Anglo-Saxon literature, as Best Translated Book of the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. In addition, it appeared in 2021 on the list of recommended books by former President Barack Obama.
“Frankly, it amazes me much more that I have been so successful in Spanish, because it seems to me that the Anglo-Saxon world pays a little more attention to these themes, or at least in the European world, where most of the stories I tell happened. in the book”, says Labatut to EL PAÍS, who was born in Rotterdam 41 years ago, but has lived in Chile since his teens. “And I also dedicated myself a lot to the translation, revised it line by line, so that it was her own book, and I even wrote the last text – El Jardinero Nocturne – in English before doing it in Spanish. But I don’t try to explain the success to me. I don’t worry too much about the reactions of others and their opinions. I trained to write with my back to the world, to try to find my own value, whatever it might be, and if many people are fascinated by the book now, I take it as a compliment, but I don’t give it much importance. It may be that the next one doesn’t arouse the slightest interest. Literature is not a popularity contest, it’s a walk around a huge hole that brings everything, and that will bring me too, sooner or later.”
Your next book, La Piedra de la Locura, will be published in Spain by Anagrama on October 20, and will hit Latin American bookstores in November. La Piedra de la Locura it is almost a continuation of the questions that surround the previous one: questions for those moments when reason and madness meet in the same place. “La Piedra de la Locura and A Terrible Green they are failed attempts, profoundly failed, to put into words experiences and ideas that usually escape classification, and that contradict common sense, because they talk about things that, to this day, no one understands, at least fully”, says the author .
The Literary Laboratories of Labatut
A Terrible Green is a book of short stories that mix fiction and real facts, but closer to the philosophy of science than to science fiction. There are five short stories about scientists, all brilliant but almost all deranged.
There is as a character, for example, the astronomer Karl Schwarzschild, who changed the history of physics after finding the solution to Einstein’s theory of relativity and proved the existence of black holes – but who dies in the tale raving in a hospital for the lack of meaning of modern physics if their theories were correct. Scientists can “sleepwalk into the apocalypse,” he says in another of the tales about the brilliant mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, whose exercises in abstraction challenged pure mathematics but also drove him to the brink of madness. “Grothendieck wanted to hold the sun in his hands, to unearth the secret root capable of uniting countless theories with no apparent relationship,” says the story. “From diving so much into the fundamentals, his mind stumbled over the abyss.”
“Science is a source of miracles and catastrophes, but the human impulse that seeks more and more knowledge is something very old”, says the author of his fascination with reason and delusion. This hunger for knowledge “runs deeply through the Luciferian side of our nature, without which we would have died out, but which also costs us dearly, because each new knowledge opens a new wound”.
Another of these wounds, in addition to madness, could be catastrophic to the planet. The first tale tells the story of Fritz Haber, German and Jewish chemist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 and the first to extract nitrogen from the air. But Haber was also the father of chemical warfare in World War I and, the story goes, his wife “accused him of perverting science by creating a method to exterminate humans on an industrial scale.” Fritz ignored her and she committed suicide with a revolver. “For him, war was war and death was death,” says the book. Haber died in 1934, but first created a pesticide used in Hitler’s concentration camps, and the “pesticide he helped create was used by the Nazis in their gas chambers to murder his half sister, brother-in-law, nephews, and so on. other Jews”.
Scientists’ delusions and excesses were evident in the early part of the 20th century and during the Cold War, but in recent years the leaders of modern science have suffered other threats to their credibility that are also dangerous: attacks on biologists and chemists by anti-vaccine groups and the who still, against all evidence, deny climate change. But Labatut’s literature, although not an apology for science and scientists, is not conspiracyist either. His works do not debate discoveries proven more than a thousand times. They are looking for the “margin of error”, those points where reason has revealed its limits.
“True science is full of doubts,” says Labatut. “I don’t think we should trust and believe in science, what we should do is get to know it. Because a scientific view of things forces you to consider aspects of reality that challenge your view of the world, that make you – almost unwittingly – more humble, more skeptical, and more awake”.
the personal madness
La Piedra de la Locura, his new book with two essays, explores the work and personal lives of more scientists, such as mathematician David Hilbert, and other artists, such as writers Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick. But it’s also a much more personal book and grounded in recent crises. “Today we live in Dick’s world, a plural and demented nightmare in which we will never be able to fully believe what we see, feel and hear”, writes Labatut about the unstable credibility of today’s great narratives, scientific and social, which leave a large part of the population in uncertainty. The author tells in this book that after publishing A Terrible Green several people approached him to ask him urgent questions like “When did we stop understanding the world?” and “Have we ever come to understand reality?”
To answer, this time Labatut does not only turn to the history of science from the beginning of the 20th century, but to the most recent: the Chilean social explosion of 2019, a moment in which a narrative that society has built for decades – about development and economic progress – has erupted. “No one – no politician, scientist, social leader and artist – was able to explain what was going on,” he writes of the social rage of the moment. There were repressed social tragedies that some had already diagnosed; but the sudden social metamorphosis during the explosion that required immediate radical change, for a time, had no clear direction. “Despite its enormous power, our dazzling revolution had a very special quality: it had no central narrative,” writes Labatut.
What happens when the narrative societies have woven for decades – from early 20th century European scientists to 21st century Chilean society – ends? How not to succumb to madness when the stories we create to live are broken?
“The absence of a central narrative is a source of vertigo, it is something that frightens even the bravest”, says Labatut. “But it is also an absolutely necessary space of freedom and a great opportunity for the new, the unexpected and the miraculous to emerge”. This lack of a central narrative can take several directions, according to the author: that a new grand narrative of common sense emerges; and that they dominate delusional perspectives “like the neopaganism of the Nazis”; and even “that we give a good part of our soul to the absurd, maybe we set up our image of the world based on fragments that have no narrative and meaning whatsoever, like the horrible content we are bombarded with on social networks.”
The title of the new book is inspired by The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a beautiful 1505 painting by Hieronymus van Aken, the Bosch painter, which is in the Prado Museum. In it is seen a surgeon with two assistants who is supposedly extracting a stone, madness, from a man’s skull. But who is more delusional in the frame? The patient asking for help? Or the man who, as was thought in the Middle Ages, sees madness as a stone embedded in the brain that can be cured with a quick surgery?
“I don’t know madness from afar, but since I was a child I’ve always had the suspicion that there was something fundamentally twisted, something very extraordinary just under the skin of things,” says Labatut. even if in La Piedra de la Locura the author speaks of the delusions of artists and scientists, and of a curious blogger who accuses him of plagiarism, also briefly mentions the mental illnesses of people closest to his family (“My great-grandfather ended up in a madhouse. My grandmother was certainly bipolar”, he writes). Your 2016 book, After the Light, was inspired by a personal crisis in which the author experienced a strange disconnect from reality. “A book that I don’t know if I would publish again, especially now that I’m known”, says Labatut now. “But that, for better or for worse, made me the writer and the person I am now. This book and this experience changed the way I read, write and perceive the world”.
The two essays in La Piedra de la Locura they are a profound reflection on how we can understand, and perhaps enjoy, both this space we call madness and what we call reason. “Reason is not our only faculty, nor is it the most important one,” says the writer. “The Argentine writer Néstor Sánchez (who was schizophrenic, it is worth mentioning) expressed it better than anyone else: truth and madness are symptoms of the same disease. What really interests me is this disease”.