This year I wanted to read atleast one book by each of the five J’s – Juli (Zeh), Julia (Franck), Judith (Hermann) and the two Jennys (Zoë and Erpenbeck) – authors who are affectionately known as ‘Fräuleinwunder’. Last month I read Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’ and loved it. This month it is the turn of Juli Zeh. I loved the central theme of ‘Dark Matter’ and so decided to read it. Here is what I think.
‘Dark Matter’ is a crime thriller and is also a book which has a scientific theme. Two of the main characters, Sebastian and Oskar, are scientists who are potential Nobel prize winners. They have been friends since university days. Sebastian is married to Maike and has a son. Oskar is still single. Sebastian and Oskar frequently have debates on physics – on quantum mechanics and the wave equation and on whether the Schrödinger’s cat analogy can apply to the world from a human perspective. Sebastian and Oskar hold different points of view on this and so frequently the debates are heated. One day Sebastian is taking his son to camp. While stopping by at a store for getting supplies, he discovers that his son has disappeared. He gets a phone call from an unknown number and a woman on the other side tells him that Dabbelink must go. Dabbelink is Sebastian’s wife Maike’s friend and Sebastian is a little jealous of their relationship. Now after this phone call, Sebastian thinks that his son has been kidnapped and he has to kill Dabbelink to get his son back.
I will stop here as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. Does Sebastian kill Dabbelink? Do the kidnappers return his son? What is the role of Schrödinger’s Cat in all this? You have to read the story to find out the answers.
‘Dark Matter’ is a very different kind of thriller. There is a physics theme which underlies the whole book. So, there are lots of insightful, philosophical passages which are very beautiful to read. There are many discussions on scientific concepts and how they relate to our everyday world. I loved these passages. There are also two interesting detective characters in the story – Detective Rita Skura who is working hard to prove herself in a man’s world and Detective Superintendent Schilf who finds out the truth in unconventional, unlikely ways. I loved the scene in which Rita Skura is introduced. I loved all the main characters in the story – they were well fleshed out, complex and unique.
There were two mysteries in the story – one of them which is revealed to the readers at the beginning and another which is revealed in the end. I found that to be the weakest part of the book – the plot. I could understand the underlying philosophical ideas and scientific concepts and the way those got manifested in the real world were quite interestingly explained. But the plot was still not very satisfying, in my opinion.
Having said that, I still liked the book – there were beautiful passages throughout the book, the discussions on quantum mechanics, the wave equation, Schrödinger’s Cat and the true nature of time were fascinating (clearly Juli Zeh has done her research) and the characters were believable and real. The book defied categorization – it was a crime thriller, but there were beautiful literary and philosophical passages in it and there was also a lot of discussion on science – I loved this aspect of the book.
There were also many beautiful descriptions of Freiburg, where the story happens – the city where many wonderful German authors came from or studied in and where one of my favourite friends lives. Two of my favourite Freiburg passages in the story were these :
As you approach it from the south-west, at a height of about five hundred metres, Freibuge looks like a bright, worn patch in the folds of the Black Forest. It lies there as if it had fallen from the heavens one day, right at the feet of the mountains. The peaks of Belchen, Schauinsland and Feldberg stand in a ring around it. Freiburg has existed for mere minutes in relation to these mountains, yet the town behaves as if it has always been there, next to the River Dreisam. If Schauinsland were to ripple its slopes in a shrug of indifference, hundreds of people cycling, riding in cable cars or looking for butterflies would die; if Feldberg were to turn away in boredom, that would be the end of the entire district. But the mountains don’t do that. Instead, they turn their sombre faces to the goings on in the streets of Freiburg, where people set out to entertain. Every day mountains and forests send a swarm of birds into the city to gather the latest news and report back.
The detective has never particularly liked Freiburg. The people seem too happy to him, and the reasons for their happiness too banal. It smells a little of holidays, especially when the sun is shining. Students are lifting their bottoms on to hand-painted bicycles. Married women festooned in batik make their way to their favourite boutiques. A traffic jam of pushchairs has already formed outside a health food shop. No one here seems to feel the need to ponder the meaning of life. The detective sees only one face with a sceptical expression. It belongs to the blue-and-yellow macaw in a large cage next to the postcard stand…
Some of my other favourite passages from the book were these :
They also never taught you what to do with a three-word sentence. It is always thee-word sentences that change the life of a human being in a decisive manner. I love you. I hate you. Father is dead. I am pregnant. Liam has disappeared. Dabbelink must go. After a three-word sentence, one is totally alone.
The beauty of time is that it passes unaided and is undisturbed by what happens within it. Even the next few seconds will disappear, and what seemed impossible a moment ago will be over and done with. Waiting is not difficult. Life consists of waiting. Therefore, Sebastian decides, life is child’s play.
Rita Skura has a cat. When she lifts the animal off the ground, it spreads the toes of all four paws as though it is preparing tiny parachutes for a fall. Rita Skura would never drop her cat, but the cat does not rely on that. If it were to fall one day it would land softly and stroke the hair on its chin with a superior look on its face. That is exactly why Rita loves her pet. It possesses two qualities which to the end of her days she will never have : healthy mistrust and natural elegance.
Despite years of experience, Schilf feels a slight shudder at the sight of a human fate turned into paper. Every file he opens is an intersection between his life and that of an unknown person. It will never be possible to untangle the threads that weave themselves together from the moment he starts reading.
So what is the final verdict on ‘Dark Matter’? I liked the book. I loved the beautiful passages and I will be coming back to read them again. I also hope to read more of Juli Zeh’s work. Her work seems to be really unique – literary, philosophical and contemporary themes all woven into one.
Have you read ‘Dark Matter’ by Juli Zeh? What do you think about it?