Jorge Volpi is a prolific Mexican writer, born in 1968. His first work in English is this prize-winning novel which, oddly, shuns any references to Mexico. Volpi is one of a cluster of Latin American writers sick of magical realism. He has adopted Borges's definition of his Argentinian identity as a cosmopolitan curiosity about the world, rather than as a patriotic duty to prove his roots.
This openness to the world has been harder for Mexicans, with a richer history than Argentina's. But if D H Lawrence or Graham Greene can place novels in Mexico, why can't a Mexican write about Europe? In one sense, urban life in the mega-city of Mexico City is just as globalised as anywhere else.
Volpi has put his finger on the pulse of the 20th century by picking on the struggle to develop the atomic bomb in Nazi Germany. He has tied this crucial moment to a secret chat between the physicists Bohr and Heisenberg, brought to public awareness, as Volpi notes, by Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen, as he was completing his novel in Spanish. He has cleverly plotted this meeting about scientific responsibility and war into the Nuremberg enquiry that loops back to the attempted assassination of Hitler.
The narrator frames this fascinating history with a parable about evil and redemption from Wagner's Parsifal (hence the novel's title) and the subplot about passion and betrayal. Throughout, Volpi translates Einstein's theory of relativity, quantum physics, Gödel's proof and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle into behaviour: games his characters play, never fully knowing. And not one mention of Mexico.
Clearly this is an ambitious project that could have ended up as an investigative essay, but didn't. The title tells us that suspense, the search for the code-named head of Nazi research, is going to determine the history. Volpi invents his narrator, a German mathematician on the fringes of the drama, who tells of his interrogation in 1946 by a Francis P Bacon, an American physicist, and then of his betrayal as they seek Klingsor.
Both their backgrounds are dramatised, with vague parallels. Volpi makes psychological complexity secondary: the main scientists and their lovers are described physically, and reveal themselves through talk. In fact, the bulk of the novel is dialogue. But what makes it tick is the unfolding plot.
It opens ponderously, with sub-Borgesian comments about writing and physics. The meandering conversations can even seem pointless, for in this translation every character sounds the same. I missed also a grittier sense of realistic detail. But halfway through, Volpi cleverly tightens his plot by introducing destructive passions into the lives of his characters while the well-known history of Nazi Germany repeats itself. By the last 80 pages, you cannot put the book down.
Most Latin American writers now have to be published in Spain in order to be read throughout the continent and earn enough to write. Volpi has travelled the right route to a wider readership while, in Umberto Eco's wake, not betraying a serious concern for what defined the 20th century for all of us, Mexicans included. By revealing how passions and fate drive and humanise his scientists through issues that still affect us, he has largely succeeded in bridging the cult-writer and the blockbuster.
I found some minor irritations, like his use of facile similes that trivialise his scientists (lips become "two eels wrestling with each other"), and missed more concision. In fact, one way of locating his absent Mexican-ness would be this baroque proliferation, just contained by his faultless plotting.
Jason Wilson is professor of Spanish at University College London
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