Original language: English
Original title: The Maniac
Year of publication: 2023
Translation: Benjamin Labatut
Valuation: Highly recommended high
It’s not easy to condense MANIAC into half a dozen paragraphs. We could say that it is a triptych about reason and madness (that the dream of reason produces monsters), a metaphysical-mathematical novel about the dangers of technology, about men who played at being gods who do not play dice. , about half-open Pandora’s boxes, etc. So many things contained in 400 pages that, at least two thirds of them, remind me a lot of Zelig, that Woody Allen film about a chameleon-like man in which the New Yorker used the documentary form to build the biography of the character. . Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
There are three parts into which the text is divided, the second and largest being the center of a work that extends its tentacles towards the past and the future.
The first of them tells the story of the physicist Paul Ehrenfest and his growing death drive as a result of perverse rationality that was beginning to take root around him. A really brutal and disturbing beginning that brings to mind The tunnel by Ernesto Sábato (curiously or not, a physicist and mathematician before a writer and who abandoned science due to an existential crisis).
In the central part, which occupies 170 of the 400 pages of the book, the biography of the Hungarian Janos Lajos Neumann is fictionalized, who became Johnny Von Neumann once he emigrated to the United States and JVN for us, a fascinating and contradictory character (brilliant and childish, selfish and cruel genius, obsessive visionary), who in his 54 years of life created the first modern computer, laid the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics or game theory, participated in the creation of the bomb atomic, prophesied artificial intelligence, etc. As I said before, JVN’s biography is constructed in the form of a false documentary / journalistic report based on true facts and testimonies from 15 people who accompanied the “genius” in life: colleagues, friends, wives, daughter, etc. With this, what Labatut achieves, in addition to covering the entirety of JVN’s life and work, is to suggest an infinite number of questions and doubts and hence that mathematical-metaphysical aspect that he spoke of.
Finally, the final 100 pages bring us closer to the future interviewed by JVN and tell us about the challenge between Lee Sedol, the best Go player of his time, and Alpha Go, an advanced artificial intelligence system. We contemplate, thus, the advance of the technologies developed or prefigured by JVN and company, we stand, this time, face to face with the machines, and we witness, between fascinated and trembling, the terrifying beauty of the possibilities that they suggest.
I think there are two main successes or virtues of Labatut in this work. On the one hand, the chosen structure, with multiple voices, and their temporal location, many years after JVN’s death, give rise to varied readings, different interpretations of the character’s life and creations; On the other hand, the pace with which Labatut handles the narrative makes such “arduous” topics as nuclear physics, quantum mechanics or the game of Go become something truly exciting. In this sense, Labatut recalls the best Bolaño, capable of giving a dizzying pace to any narrative, whether it is about Nazi writers, horrible crimes or realvisceralist delusions.
The only thing that “clouds” the assessment of the book and does not place it in the essential category is the excessively “Wikipedia” nature of the text. And this leads me to wonder if Benjamín Labatut is a genius or a snake charmer, a great writer or a magician extremely skilled in his sleight of hand. To clarify this doubt (and because, whatever the case, I have enjoyed MANIAC like a dwarf) I have already ordered A terrible green. I will review it in a few weeks. It is said.