Translated from German by Christine Lo

Longlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize 2011

We did not hear everything but we saw most of what happened, for one of us was always there.
A detective with a fatal headache – who loves a theory of physics and does not believe in coincidence – solves his final case.  A child is kidnapped but does not know it.  A doctor does what he should not do. One man dies, two physicists fight and a senior constable falls in love.  In the end, everything seems different from what the detective thought, yet exactly the same.  A man’s ideas are his score, his life the twisted music.
It went, we think, something like this.

Hooked?  That’s the prologue and I’ve quoted it in full so that you can assess how long it took Juli Zeh to pull me into this magnificent philosophical thriller.


Oskar and Sebastian’s friendship began at university where they studied physics.  They were inseparable.   Also extremely gifted.  They bounced their ideas off each other and post-grad rose to heights unimagined by their peers.  Although their friendship endured, Oskar always saw Sebastian’s marriage as a betrayal and his pursuit of an academic career a cop out.  As for his describing the many world theory in a popular magasine, well!  Oskar,the ever-so superior physicist who researches at CERN,  treats that with eye-rolling contempt! Only where an almost unbreakable bond has broken can there be such passion, heat and vitriol. 

After one particularly heated debate on national television,  Sebastian’s son is kidnapped and the ransomer demands a price that is surely too high.  Yet Sebastian’s love of his son is visceral and knows no bounds and Dabbeling, a consultant embroiled in a scandal involving dead patients and experimental drugs,  doesn’t stand a chance.  It’s gruesome and guaranteed to make keen cyclists think twice before taking a spin in the Black Forest.

So far, so entertaining, but the twist that comes in a telephone call 4 days after this is an utterly brilliant piece of timimg.  It leaves Sebastian quite understandably gibberish with shock on the floor.

Enter the detectives.  Chief investigator, Rita Skare, whose career in criminology is governed by one rule. 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 always do the opposite of what she felt.   And Schilf, the instructor who taught Rita Skare that one rule, has his own infallible methods of detection.  Do nothing, drink coffee, think your way into the motivation of the criminal to understand the why of the crime.  Unconventional, certainly, but for the man whose life was shattered by something in the past , referred to solely as “the break” , the whys of the crime take precedence, particularly this one where he’s not so much interested in the murderer but in the instigator.

And who would that be?  Is he more guilty of the crime than the perpetrator?   Philosophical questions coexist with the metaphysical.  Is it the nature of time that gives the illusion of many worlds?  Or do we live in a strictly empirical inescapable universe?  Admittedly this was a little beyond my comprehension, but I’m sure the scientists among you will love this aspect.  In Zeh’s novel everything that is possible happens;  everything that can be argued is argued.  The police are competent yet cannot solve the case.  It takes a philosopher who dismisses the only witness as irrelevant to do so.  Lives are ruined by a misunderstanding of  Orwellian proportions.   And at end of all this individual human tragedy, comedy, love, hate, chance and logic, the epilogue to remind us that we are but specks in the macrocosm of our universe.

As you take off towards the north-east, Freiburg looks less like a city than a carpet of colours flowing into each other.  A shimmering rainbow mass.  No one can say whether he is a part of it or it is a part of him  A mosaic of roofs on which the morning sun lavishes its golden tones.  The quicksilver ribbon of the Dreisam winds its way through.  You can float the bluish air like it’s water. The mountains call the birds home.  The birds report their news.

It went something like this, we say.


(Dark Matter is published in the US as In Free Fall.)