Archive for the ‘Juli Zeh’ Category

The Method

November 5, 2015


While half the world continues to lack the basic requirements of good health – clean water, a sufficient diet, easily available (and affordable) medical care – the other half seems intent on creating its own health crisis. Increasing levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease – frequently related to lifestyle choices. The associated cost to society raises questions of both individual and state responsibility (a sugar tax, for example, has recently been proposed in the UK) – and it exactly these questions which Juli Zeh tackles in her dystopian novel The Method (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer).

In it, Zeh presents a society where health is paramount and every individual has to take responsibility for ensuring they remain healthy. As described by Kramer, the character who articulates the Method throughout the novel, we might think we have reached a utopian rather than dystopian state:

“Our society… has attained its apotheosis. Unlike every previous or current form of organisation, we’re not in thrall to the market or religion. We’re not dependent on high-flown ideological beliefs. The smug, self-serving faith in popular democracy has no place in our system. Our society is guided by reason and reason alone: its sole founding principle is taken from biological life”

For the Method to work every individual must act rationally (within the terms of the Method) and do exactly as required. Any infraction is dealt with by law, and when we first meet Mia she is in court charged with:

“Violation of duty of provide medical data… Nutritional records and sleep patterns overdue for the current month. Sudden cessation of sporting activities. Failure to provide home blood pressure readings and urine samples.”

Mia is grieving over the death of her brother Moritz: her entirely human reaction is at odds with the logic of the Method. To make matters worse, Moritz’s death is something of a cause celebre as he committed suicide after being found guilty of murder. The suicide was not an admission of guilt: despite his DNA being found on the victim, Moritz had refused to accept responsibility for the crime, a defiance of reason which was seen as undermining the Method. Mia, too, cannot accept that Moritz was the killer.

german lit month

The challenge of writing dystopian fiction is in being able to give a full picture of your imagined society while at the same time telling a story on an individual level. Zeh manages this with great skill through Mia, a character initially accepting of the Method who becomes – unintentionally – a threat to the state. She is also given an imaginary companion – the ideal inamorata – a reference to her brother’s belief that in the woman he was accused of murdering he had found someone to love. (Relationships are also scientifically matched in the Method). The ideal inamorata represents her brother’s doubts about the Method, and adds a sacrilegious commentary to Mia’s conversations. As an imaginary companion she is in direct contrast to the rationality of the Method. (And ass a fictional device the ideal inamorata also challenges the reader to move beyond reason).

Once Mia is perceived as a threat to the Method, the novel becomes an examination of the way totalitarian states protect themselves. Much of this is played out in the courts and in conversations between Mia and Kramer. The latter lie at the heart of the novel, giving it at times the feel of a philosophical debate, enhanced by the sense they are playing particular roles and could otherwise be amicable:

“Mia’s attitude towards Kramer is ambivalent to use a word beloved of the undecided. She cannot even say she dislikes him. In fact, earlier that day, when he bent over her attentively to hand her a cup of freshly brewed water… it seemed to her briefly she could love him.”

The roles they play are of state and transgressor, Kramer cynically linking her to terrorist groups we cannot even be sure exist, but equally fearful that she may become a martyr. The legal system itself is more blinkered than corrupt. (The novel’s original title, Corpus Delicti, refers to principle that a crime must be proven to have been committed before a person can be convicted of it, presumably suggesting both the ambiguity of Mia’s crime and the irony of the proof of Moritz’s). Through Mia and Kramer’s conversations Zeh drives the twists and turns of the plot, cranking up the tension without the need for action sequence or histrionics.

The Method is an excellent example of its genre: in it you can see both the echoes of the past and the dangers of the future.

Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for once again hosting German Lit Month, and to Lizzy in particular for my copy of The Method.

Dark Matter

April 11, 2011

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.