Chilean Benjamin Labatut, a new publishing phenomenon in Latin America

Benjamín Labatut, escritor chileno en su estudio.
Benjamín Labatut, Chilean writer in your study. COURTESY

For the Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut, books are similar “to the laboratories of mad scientists or alchemists, because they allow you to play with ideas without the need for them to be in strict correspondence with reality. ”. One of his most intriguing labs is called Terrible Greenery , a five-story book about scientists, published in April del 2020 by Anagrama and an editorial phenomenon for an author who was not well known internationally until recently: it has been translated into 22 languages, and its Spanish version is in the ninth edition. Its English version, in particular, has been a finalist this year in the category of best translated book of the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, the most important prizes in Anglo-Saxon literature. In addition, it appeared this summer on the list of books recommended by former President Barack Obama.

“Frankly, it amazes me much more that it has been so successful in Spanish, because it seems to me that the Anglo-Saxon world pays a little more attention to these issues, or at least the European world, where most of the stories I tell in the book occurred ”, says to THE COUNTRY Labatut, who was born in Rotterdam 66 years ago but He has lived in Chile since his adolescence. “And I also dedicated myself a lot to the translation, I went through it line by line, to make it my own book, and even wrote the last text – The Night Gardener – in English before Spanish. Of course, I do not try to explain success. I do not care much about the reactions of others, or their opinions. I trained myself to write behind the world’s back, to try to find my own value, whatever it was, and if now it turns out that many people are fascinated by the book, I take it as a compliment, but I don’t give it too much importance. They may not be interested in the next one at all. Literature is not a popularity contest, it is a walk around a huge hole that swallows everything, and that will swallow me too, sooner or later. ”

His next book, The Stone of Madness , will be published in Spain by Anagrama on 20 October, and it will hit bookstores in Latin America in November. The stone of madness is almost a continuation of the questions that surround the previous one: questions about those moments in the that reason and madness are in the same place. “ The stone of madness and A terrible green . Today, nobody understands, at least not completely ”, says the author.

literary works of Labatut

A terrible verdure is a book of stories that mix fiction and real events, but closer to the philosophy of science than science fiction. There are five stories about scientists, all brilliant, but almost all insane.

He 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 story delirious in a hospital for the lack of sense of modern physics if his theories were correct. Scientists can walk “sleepwalking to the apocalypse,” says in another of the stories about the brilliant mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, whose exercises in abstraction challenged pure mathematics but also led him to the brink of insanity. “Grothendieck wanted to catch the sun in one hand, unearth the secret root capable of uniting innumerable theories without any apparent relationship,” he writes in the story. “From so much delving into the fundamentals, his mind had stumbled into 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 about his fascination with reason and delirium. This hunger for knowledge “runs very deep on the Luciferian side of our nature, without which we would have already become extinct, but which is also very expensive, because each new knowledge opens a new wound.”

Another of those wounds, in addition to madness, can be catastrophic for 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 WWI and, the story goes, his wife “accused him of perverting science by creating a method of exterminating humans on an industrial scale.” Fritz ignored her and she committed suicide with a revolver. “For him, war was war and death was death,” the book explains. Haber died in 1934 but before he created a pesticide used in Hitler’s concentration camps, and “the pesticide that he had helped create would be used by the Nazis in their gas chambers to murder his half-sister, his brother-in-law, his nephews, and so many other Jews. ”

The delusions and excesses of scientists were evident in the first part of the 20th century and during the Cold War, but in recent years the leaders of modern science have suffered other Threats to its credibility that are also dangerous: attacks on biologists or chemists by anti-vaccine groups or those who still, against all evidence, deny climate change. But Labatut’s literature, while not an apology for science or scientists, is not conspiratorial either. His works do not debate those discoveries that have been proven more than a thousand times. Rather, they are looking for the “margin of error”, those points where reason revealed its limits.

“Science true is full of doubts, ”says Labatut. “It doesn’t seem to me that we should trust or believe in science, what we should do is know it. Because a scientific vision of things forces you to consider aspects of reality that challenge your vision of the world, that make you – almost without your wanting it – more humble, more skeptical, and more awake. ”

Madness in a personal key

The Stone of Madness , its new title, explore in two essays the work and personal lives of more scientists, such as the mathematician David Hilbert, and other artists, such as the writers Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick. But it is also a much more personal book that has come down to recent crises. “Today we live in Dick’s world, a plural and insane nightmare in which we can never fully believe in what we see, feel and hear,” writes Labatut about the unstable credibility of today’s great scientific or social narratives, and that have a good part of the population in uncertainty. The author says in this book that after publishing A terrible verdure several people approached him to ask urgent questions such as ” When do we stop understanding the world? ” or “Did we ever understand reality?”

To answer, this time Labatut is not going alone to the history of science at the beginning of the 20th century but to the most recent: the Chilean social outbreak in the 2019, a at which point a narrative that society had constructed for decades – about development or economic progress – erupted. “Nobody – no politician, scientist, social leader or artist – was able to explain what was happening,” he writes about the social anger of the moment. There were repressed social tragedies that some had already diagnosed; but the sudden social metamorphosis during the outbreak 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 lacked a central narrative,” writes Labatut.

What happens when the narrative that societies have woven for decades – from the European scientists of the early 20th century to the Chilean society of the 21st century – ends? How can we not succumb to madness when the stories we have created for living are broken?

“The absence of a central narrative is a source of vertigo, it is something that scares 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 could take different directions, according to the author: that a new great narrative with common sense emerges; or that delusional perspectives dominate “like the neo-paganism of the Nazis”; or even “that we give a good part of our soul to nonsense, perhaps we put together our image of the world based on fragments that completely lack narrative or meaning, such as the horrible content we bombard ourselves with on social networks.”

“The Extraction of the Stone of Madness” by Bosco COURTESY

The title of the new book is inspired by The e extraction of the stone of madness , a beautiful painting of 1505 by Hieronymus van Aken, El Bosco, which is in the Prado Museum of Madrid. In this one you see a surgeon with two assistants who is supposedly extracting a stone, madness, in the skull of a man. But who is more delusional in the painting? The patient asking for help? Or the man who, as was thought in medieval times, sees madness as a stone embedded in the brain that can be healed with rapid surgery?

“I do not know madness even from afar, but since I was a child I always had the suspicion that there was something fundamentally twisted, something very extraordinary just under the skin of things,” says Labatut . Although in The Stone of Madness the author speaks of the delusions of artists or scientists, and of a curious blogger who accuses him of plagiarism, also briefly mentions the mental illnesses experienced by people closest to his family (“My great-grandfather ended up in an asylum. My grandmother was probably bipolar,” he writes). Your book of 2016, After the light, was inspired by a personal crisis in which the author experienced a strange disconnect with reality. “A book that I do not know if I would publish again, especially now that I am known,” says Labatut now. “But that, for better and for worse, made me the writer and the person I am now. That book and that experience changed the way I read, write and perceive the world. ”

The two essays in The stone of madness are a deep reflection on how we can understand, and perhaps take advantage of, both that space we call madness as what we call reason. “Reason is not our only faculty, and it is not the most important either,” says the writer. “The Argentine writer Néstor Sánchez (who was schizophrenic, it must be said) expressed it better than anyone: truth and madness are symptoms of the same disease. What really interests me is this disease. ”

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