Review | Author Benjamin Labatut reimagines the life of physicist John von Neumann in his genre-defying novel ‘The Maniac’

Labatut fills his novels with real people and real events, and makes it all seem fantastical

Published - February 09, 2024 09:30 am IST

Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist and computer scientist John von Neumann.

Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist and computer scientist John von Neumann. | Photo Credit: Bettmann Archive/ Getty Images

Few novels begin more dramatically than Benjamin Labatut’s The Maniac. “On the morning of the twenty-fifth of September 1933, the Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest walked into Professor Jan Waterink’s Pedagogical Institute for Afflicted Children in Amsterdam, shot his fifteen-year-old son, Vassily, in the head, then turned the gun on himself.”

That owes nothing to Labatut’s febrile imagination, for every word is true. The year is significant. Hitler had come to power in Germany. Classical physics was being challenged by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which stated that the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured simultaneously. In mathematics, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem said that in any system there will always be true statements that cannot be proved. In the new world, reason seemed to have abdicated. 

The merely intelligent found this exciting. The overly sensitive, like Ehrenfest, a Jew who had to flee Germany, and whose son had Down Syndrome, found it unbearable. Ehrenfest speaks of a “strange new rationality” as the old certainties crumbled around him. He describes it as “a spectre haunting the soul of science… both logic-driven and utterly irrational… preparing to thrust itself into our lives through technology by enrapturing the cleverest men and women with whispered promises of superhuman power and godlike control”.

The Maniac isn’t about Ehrenfest, though. He merely sets the stage for John von Neumann, mathematical genius, around whom this beautiful, stimulating, unsettling, provocative, novel revolves. 

J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) and John von Neumann stand in front of “the fastest computing machine”, in 1952, U.S.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) and John von Neumann stand in front of “the fastest computing machine”, in 1952, U.S. | Photo Credit: Bettmann

von Neumann, Hungary-born polymath, established the mathematical framework for quantum mechanics, founded the field of game theory, played a crucial role in the building of the nuclear bomb, and took the initial steps to creating artificial intelligence. Our three biggest modern concerns — nuclear war, climate change and artificial intelligence — are tied up with his work. 

In a recent biography, Ananyo Bhattacharya writes, “As a child, von Neumann absorbed ancient Greek and Latin, and spoke French, German and English as well as his native Hungarian. He devoured a 45-volume history of the world and was able to recite whole chapters verbatim decades later. A professor of Byzantine history who was invited to one of von Neumann’s parties said he would come only if it was agreed they would not discuss the subject. ‘Everybody thinks I am the world’s greatest expert in it,’ he told von Neumann’s wife, ‘and I want them to keep on thinking that.’”

One man’s ambition

The first programmable digital computer was called MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer), a word that fits its architect von Neumann rather well, implies Labatut. “So much of the high-tech world we live in today, with its conquest of space and extraordinary advances in biology and medicine, were spurred on by one man’s monomania,” he explains. 

Author Benjamin Labatut

Author Benjamin Labatut

Chilean writer Labatut, 43, born in the Netherlands, once said that anything that comes out of a writer is fiction. To find another person’s phrase is more important to him, he has said, than to come up with one himself. That tells you what you need to know about Labatut’s approach — if every person’s inner life is a mix of fiction and fact, why should a description of it not be so? This genre-defying novel is diminished by attempts at describing it.

Labatut doesn’t do magic realism. Instead he is the master of realistic magic, filling his novels with real people and real events, and making it all seem fantastical and relevant. The Maniac, his first book in English, deals with the issues of his previous, When We Cease to Understand the World (2020)written in Spanish and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. It moves at great pace, propelled by enchanting sentences.

While popular science books speak of great discoveries and those associated with them, they seldom focus on the personal toll. Perhaps these two books, dense with information and macabre humour, might be termed ‘unpopular’ science books, exploring the human cost of progress as moral questions shimmer in the background (von Neumann is described as having a “child-like moral blindness”). 

We like to believe that rationality is a defence against terror and despair. But what if rationality is actually the path to such feelings? Push far enough and you are in irrational territory. 

Like a documentary

Labatut explores the life of von Neumann through those around him, including his wives. Some of these passages are necessarily speculative, but they are based on historical records. To see the same figure through different prisms has the effect of considering a cubist painting, where multiple perspectives both clarify and confuse. The author’s absence gives it a documentary feel. We see too what fiction can do as it passes through non-fiction, picking up just what’s necessary. 

Reason and madness, chance and determinism, the accidental and the inevitable, chaos and order, all bubble away underneath. Labatut’s brilliance brings them to the surface periodically with chilling inevitability. Our problems are not created by a shortage of rationality, he suggests, but from an excess of it. 

The final section highlights the match between the Korean Go champion Lee Sedol and the computer AlphaGo. Artificial Intelligence beat the real thing 4-1. Sedol won the last game when “AlphaGo had become delusional,” writes Labatut. 

Is that the future of the self-replicating machine von Neumann had been conceptualising? Or a sly suggestion that the circle of life exists among machines? Had we built a creative mind more brilliant than von Neumann’s only to discover that machines are human too? “All processes that are stable we shall predict,” said von Neumann, and “all processes that are unstable we shall control.” It is a stunning assertion, gaining in relevance in our AI world. 

In the final chapter of When We Cease to Understand the World, the night gardener, a former mathematician, says, “It was mathematics — not nuclear weapons, computers, biological warfare or our climate Armageddon — which was changing our world to the point where, in a couple of decades at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant.” 

It is a thought that animates The Maniac too, leaving us somewhat disturbed at the end.

The Maniac
Benjamin Labatut
Pushkin Press

The reviewer’s latest book is ‘Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read?’.

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