The World

Daniel Kehlmann
Carol Brown Janeway,

Alexander von Humboldt liked to measure things. Endlessly. Non-stop. "Numbers banish disorder," he claimed.

Humboldt's first trip was made with a certain Aimé Bonpland from La Rochelle. When they arrived in Tenerife, the native ladies wanted to play with the playful Bonpland. All the women laughed, and Humboldt "didn't know where to put his hands."

    Bonpland was smiling, too, but when he saw Humboldt's expression, he turned serious again.

They climbed the volcano, and they reached the gardens of Orotava. "Humboldt, stupefied, was face to face with the first plants of the of New World. The sight of a hairy spider sunning itself on the trunk of a palm tree filled him with shock and delight. That was when he first noticed the dragon tree."

    It had been here before Christ and Buddha, Plato and Tamburlane. Humboldt held his watch up to his ear. It carried time within itself as it ticked away, while this tree warded off time: a crag against which its river broke. Humboldt touched the deeply corrugated trunk. High above, the branches opened out, and the twittering of hundreds of birds pierced the air. Tenderly, he stroked the bark. Everything died, every human being, every animal, every moment. Only one thing endured. He laid his cheek against the wood, then drew back and glanced around horrified in case anyone had seen him. He quickly wiped away his tears and went in search of Bonpland.

Ay, mama mia! If my doughty dull dipsomaniacal Dr. Duhl, science teacher, had only allowed us, once, for one fleeting moment, to have this picture of Humboldt weeping beside the dragon tree, offered us this one slice of humanity, this one shot of the great man (instead of his long and lackluster, lackidaisical dialectical lecture on Humboldt's carefully plotted life and even more carefully plotted measurements) we could have fallen in love with him.

Or if we had been allowed to see him the moment when he saw the great stone in Mexico. "The whole city is a calendar," he said when he arrived at Teotihuacan.

    Humboldt was standing in front of a gigantic stone wheel. A whirlwind of lizards, snakes' heads, and human figures broken into geometric fragments. In the center, a face with out-stretched tongue and lidless eyes. Slowly the chaos resolved itself; he recognized correspondences, images that enlarged one another, symbols repeatedly at minutely regulated intervals, and that encoded numbers. It was a calendar. He tried to draw it, but couldn't, and it had something to do with the face at the center.

§     §     §

I can always tell when I have gone bonkers over a writer's writing when I find myself disgorging long chunks of quotes instead of tending to my knitting ... a review. Well, I just can't do it. Kehlmann's prose --- and the translation by Janeway --- is so fetching that I'm going to give up right here. Kehlmann's way with words convinces me that you and me and that dumb Don DeLillo, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Daniel Steele and any of the rest of them who presume to tell a story with a hum-drum plodding novel should be taken out, chained down and abandoned on the rocks for the hyenas and toadwort. Measuring the World is spirited, short, funny, wildly eccentric. You not only get Humboldt but shy Gauss, ancient Kant, mad Leibniz, anxious young Weber ... all seeded generously with aperçus on physics ("space was folded, bent, and extremely strange..."), aging ("How had he grown so old? One didn't feel right any more, one didn't see right any more, and one thought at a snail's pace. Aging wasn't a tragedy. It was a farce...")

And the ultimate warning on the ultimate dangers of the black hole of science: "A bearded university professor with a bald head and round spectacles presented them with a tiny glass flask containing cosmic ether that he had separated out from the atmosphere with a complicated filtration system. The little flask was so heavy that it needed to be lifted with both hands, and its contents radiated such as darkness that even at a short distance things lost their clarity."

    The substance must be stored with care, said the professor, cleaning the dirty lenses of his glasses, it was extremely flammable. As for him, he'd dismounted the experiment; besides what was in the flask there was nothing left over, and he recommended it be buried deep underground. It was also better not to look at it for too long. It wasn't good for the temper.

--- Louise Wellcome, PhD
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