The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – Dark Matter
Dark Matter by Juli Zeh is one of three German books on the long list for the independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This in itself might suggest a renaissance in German writing, but what is even more encouraging is the variety that these authors offer. Where Visitation is intense and literary and Fame is witty and amusing, Dark Matter is an intelligent thriller with a liberal dose of physics thrown in. This is obvious from the punning title, dark matter being the undetectable matter theorised from its effect on what we can see, and a reference to the murder that will take place within the novel’s pages.
The two main characters, Sebastian and Oskar, are both physicists and their relationship is central to all that happens. Inseparable at university, their friendship falls apart over an incident where they write an equation together on a blackboard, meeting in the middle. When Sebastian sees that Oskar has automatically chosen the harder task of writing from right to left, he realises that their friendship is not one of equals:
“The moment their hands met in the middle of the blackboard was a one-sided victory, and Sebastian felt the urge to punish Oskar for this.”
From this point their lives diverge: Oskar goes on to become one of the most important physicists in the world; Sebastian finds a niche for himself exploring the many worlds theory – a theory Oskar finds ridiculous – marries and has a son. The situation is not that uncommon: the one friend who goes on to excel but remains alone; the other who opts for a life of cosy domesticity instead. They do, however, keep in touch, continuing to argue: “You used to be a good physicist,” says Oskar on one occasion, “before you went off course.”
The thriller aspect kicks in when Sebastian, taking his son to a Scout camp, receives a phone call as he is leaving the toilets at a petrol station telling him to stand still:
“The most important thing is to tell nobody. Do you understand? No-bo-dy. Leave the building now. I’ll call you back immediately.”
The car, of course, is gone. This scene works well because Zeh has spent time establishing Sebastian’s character and his relationship with his son. It is also very easy for the reader to identify with Sebastian’s situation: he is quite unequivocal that he will do anything to get his son back, and this includes murder.
As with any thriller, revealing much more would make it difficult for another reader to have the same pleasure of discovery as I had. Zeh presents Sebastian’s thoughts on killing another man with both a grim humour and a nail-biting tension. He then introduces not one, but two fascinating detectives to investigate both the murder and the kidnap, with an equally intriguing relationship, Rita Skura and her mentor Schlif. It was Schlif who turned Rita into a successful policewoman:
“She had to learn that her trusting nature was what her opponent expected, so she always had to assume the opposite of what she was thinking, and do the opposite of what she felt.”
Schlif, on the other hand, is an intuitive detective. He agrees to take on the kidnap rather than the murder as he feels there is a link. In his interviews he rarely asks direct questions: he talks to Sebastian about physics and his wife, who runs a gallery, about art. In this, Zeh attempts to link his method to quantum theory:
“In his opinion, this reality is nothing other than creation born second by second in the head of every single observer and thus brought into the world. A long time ago the detective developed a method by which he attempted to read the programme code. This is how he solves his cases.”
This method, of course, works better in fiction than elsewhere. As with many literary thrillers, the intellectual padding, while necessary to the plot, is not really absorbed thematically. This is not, for example, a novel about the many worlds theory, its moral implications or its folly. For this reason, it is not quite of the standard of some of the other novels on the long list. It is, however, an engrossing and exciting read.