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."