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Hot Fusion: Omega Minor

8 minute read

Einstein called it Omega, the ratio between the actual density of the universe and the density required to keep it from imploding. If the two levels are not equal, the universe is doomed. Einstein also called Omega “the biggest blunder of my life” and eventually disowned the idea.

But what if he were right? Flemish author Paul Verhaeghen explores that possibility — and galaxies of others — in Omega Minor, his sprawling, provocative, nuclear nightmare of a novel. After appearing in the Netherlands and his native Belgium in 2004, and Germany in 2006, the book spent months on best-seller lists and won a periodic table of European literary awards. Verhaeghen gained further notoriety by declining his prize money to protest the Bush Administration’s conduct of the Iraq war.

Omega Minor has now finally arrived in the U.S. and Britain, the first of Verhaeghen’s three novels to be translated into English. Critics are comparing him to such German masters as Günter Grass and W. G. Sebald, as well as to science-minded American novelists like Thomas Pynchon and Richard Powers. Indeed, Powers — who has lived in Holland — helped find a U.S. publisher for the book, calling it “amazing” and praising Verhaeghen for taking on “the whole 20th century in a single novel.”

That is putting it gently. Much as Einstein struggled toward the end of his life to fashion a Grand Unified Theory explaining the entire cosmos, Verhaeghen links Nazism, the Holocaust, the nuclear age and the fall of communism in a grand web of causality and suspense. Hitler, Himmler, Mengele, Speer, Heisenberg, Honnecker and Gorbachev strut and fret through hot war and cold. The action ricochets back and forth from the ’30s to the ’90s, from Potsdam to Los Alamos to Auschwitz to post-Wall Berlin, where neo-Nazis are plotting an apocalypse that could put new zip in Einstein’s abandoned idea.

It sounds like an airport spy thriller, except for the primers in quantum mechanics and cognitive psychology, plus some intellectually ambitious musings on sex (the book has lots of it), memory and the uses of history. Though Verhaeghen has been writing novels for more than a decade, fiction is not his primary solar system. He is a cognitive psychologist of some renown, newly relocated from Syracuse University to Atlanta’s Georgia Tech. Most of his writings appear in such journals as Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, with enticing titles like “Aging and the Stroop Effect: A Meta-Analysis.” He wrote Omega Minor in his spare time. When English rights were sold, he did the translation himself, all 695 pages.

The book has almost that many plots. Basically, it involves a Dutch cognitive psychologist, Paul Andermans, who is doing research at the University of Potsdam in 1995. After a violent run-in with those neo-Nazis, he recovers at a hospital in nearby Berlin. There he meets Jozef de Heer, an Auschwitz survivor who persuades Andermans to write down his life story, a gripping tale of escape and betrayal in the wartime German capital. Like nearly everyone in the book, De Heer isn’t what he seems. Neither is Paul Goldfarb, a Nobel-prizewinning physicist who fled Nazi Germany to help develop the atom bomb at Los Alamos and is now back at Potsdam. Or Donatella, a sexy Italian physicist who comes on to Andermans even as she attains fusion with Goldfarb. Between trysts, she and the Nobelist are pursuing a subatomic particle whose existence might validate Einstein’s theory. Or something like that. As Donatella explains it, “Whenever a semi-simple non-abelian norm group is broken and leaves a residual subgroup, monopoles will be produced as topologically stable solutions to the theory.”

Verhaeghen has fun with academic jargon, but his writing is otherwise topologically stable. Channeling Grass and the magic realists, he has a kids’ TV magician overseeing construction of the Berlin Wall, and a cat mediating Andermans’ love life. Of the university dining hall, Andermans notes: “Friday’s pizza was not a food item but a search engine, topped with the mercilessly burnt memories of everything that had been on the past week’s menu.” De Heer, describing a bombed-out house, is equally vivid: “On a metal table in one of the rooms I spot a typewriter, the type bars warped by rust, a thorny bush of twisted language screaming to the heavens.”

Omega Minor screams to the heavens when it confronts the Holocaust, perceptively recounted thorough De Heer’s eyes. The Nazis “are not killing a people,” De Heer posits. “What they want is to turn back modernity, get rid of rationality and its twin brother uncertainty.” Recounting Germany’s demented diversion of resources from the war effort to the extermination camps, right up to the end, De Heer concludes that Nazism’s defining goal was the Holocaust, not all that Wagnerian nonsense about Reich and glory. Yet he concedes: “History is the lie people tell to give meaning to their pasts.”

Omega Minor was born of curiosity about a past that Verhaeghen, 42, never knew. “I was doing a postdoc at Potsdam in 1995,” he recalls, moments before leaving his Atlanta home for a psychology conference in California. “I took the train to Berlin and emerged at Mitte, the center of old East Berlin. I found myself alone on this huge square, except for a strange glow coming from a glass plate in the pavement. There was a small white underground chamber lined with empty bookshelves. On it was that famous [Heinrich] Heine quote, ‘Where they burn books, they will end up burning people.’ It was the monument to the 1933 book burnings. I looked up and saw I was surrounded by Frederick the Great’s Neoclassical buildings. Nearby were Hitler’s bunker and the old Jewish synagogue. I was at the center of world history. I wanted to learn more.”

So Verhaeghen began reading. He took courses in relativity, cosmology and Yiddish fiction. Nine years later, he was finished. “Honestly, I don’t know why I wrote so much,” he says. His Dutch publisher made him delete 120 pages of footnotes. He worked many of them, largely scientific explanations, into the main text, making the book a translator’s nightmare. “Later, when the book was being translated into English, I saw a sample,” he says. “It was excellent, but I didn’t recognize my voice. Until then I hadn’t realized I had a voice! So I did 30 pages myself and sent it to the [Flemish government] agency that subsidizes translations. Their outside reviewer thought my English was better than my Dutch.”

As Verhaeghen slaved at the translation — “250,000 frigging words!” — prize money kept rolling in. “I was working on a sentence at the war’s end, about how the former Nazi camps were being filled with prisoners by the Soviets,” he recalls. “It struck me that it was happening all over again, in America — the limits on freedom of speech, the first evidence of torture.” As a U.S. resident, Verhaeghen would have to pay American income tax on his prize money, then about $25,000. “I could imagine it would go for schools and hospitals, but in reality much of it would fund the war in Iraq.” So he asked that the money be given instead to the American Civil Liberties Union and to Human Rights Watch. “I hoped my gesture would make people think. But there’s been surprisingly little response. It seems we’re all very afraid now.”

For all his criticism of the U.S., it’s revealing that the Flemish world’s hottest novelist tends to refer to Americans as “we.” While Verhaeghen remains a Belgian citizen, the pull of America is strong. “I’ve reached two points of no return. I’ve been here 10 years, and I’m married to an American,” says Verhaeghen, whose wife is also a psychologist. “I don’t equate the country with what is happening now. I believe America’s heart is in the right place.”

For now, his own heart is in psychology. He is finishing a book on aging and memory for Oxford University Press, so fiction must wait. “I’m completely exhausted. Omega Minor said it all; I have nothing left.” Still, Verhaeghen finds his new surroundings intriguing. “Atlanta is a different kind of history — the Civil War, the civil-rights movement. Things are starting to move in my mind. If you see me in a seedy part of town, don’t panic. I’ll just be doing research.”

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