16 March 2010

Die Vermessung der Welt | คนวัดโลก

Die Vermessung der Welt is an ambitious novel by German novelist Daniel Kehlmann, who was born the same year as I was. The narrative centres around the lives of two important people in German intellectual history -- Alexander von Humboldt and Karl Friedrich Gauss -- and how they "measured" the world in different ways. Humboldt was by nature an explorer, travelling across the globe to Latin America trying to find a system whereby they could measure everything most accurately. Gauss, in contrast, was a prodigious mathematician, who liked to stay at home working on his mathematic formulae.

Kehlmann juxtaposes the two narratives together in a criss-cross manner, allowing us to have a glimpse of the lives of these great pathfinders. Gauss suffers from the fate of a genius whose intellect does not permit him to see that everyone else around him is not equally clever. One of his sons, Eugene, is a lost cause but his assistance is something that Gauss cannot live without, especially when he needs to make a long journey. Also, we see Gauss perceiving his own mental degeneration, which for others, is still the mind of a genius nonetheless. His suffering is more like a loner's, with pain he himself only sees and needs to endure.

Gauss complains and makes a lot of fuss whenever he needs to travel. The same cannot be said with Humboldt, as he is an avid traveller. His narrative borders on magical realism, especially when he goes to Latin American where everything seems to be marvellous and surreal. He is followed by his fellow companion who always complains but remains with him nonetheless, despite the fact that his name does not receive the same recognition Humboldt obtains.

I believe what Kehlmann does here is to portray how two different people set out to travel and measure the world, one internally and the other externally. What we also see is the beauty and subtlety of these two minds whose determination and complexity are brought into full display. Somehow the world is not the only place that needs to be discovered, as Kehlmann argues indirectly that perhaps our minds, especially those minds of great people, are also worth exploring too.

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