by Stefano Massini
Translated from Italian by Nathalie Bauer
Globe, 354 p., 23 €
In the novel that Stefano Massini devotes to the design of the atomic bomb by Robert Oppenheimer and his team, it is often a question of the interior. Precisely, from the “inside of the inside of the inside” of matter. In this heart lies the most powerful energy, just as in the hearts of men resides the most violent sadness. This unfathomable grief will arm the scientists of the Manhattan Project, who will go to the smallest of the atom to trigger the largest chain reaction ever produced.
Written in free verse, the story of the atomic bomb through the inner adventure of its designers takes on the appearance of a contemporary epic in the tradition of the Italian playwright’s two previous novels, The Lehman Brothers, epic of capitalism, and The Ladies Football Club, ode to female emancipation.
In a brilliant intuition, the author rejects the mythology of the solitary hero and surrounds the figure of Oppenheimer with a finely drawn group portrait. He depicts the Hungarian Jewish physicists who took refuge in New York at the origin of the project. A little dark, a little mysterious, these Hungarians evoke for Americans their famous compatriots, the actor Bela Lugosi and the magician Houdini. “Between Dracula who emerges from the coffins/and Houdini who is locked there/the choice is really difficult/when we study the atom. »
Drawing on Yiddish humor as well as the Bible, Stefano Massini mixes irony and epicness. “David had been armed from head to toe/Helmet, breastplate, sword/but he took off everything, he threw everything away/he demonstrated that the most powerful weapon/was elsewhere/and that no one had ever seen it” . All the art of the Italian writer lies in these incantatory phrases which retain their stage power in literature. He gives life to characters built around a fixed idea, a line of conduct that he shapes through constant references to the Old Testament. Jeremiah, Daniel, David, the kings, the patriarchs and the prophets are reincarnated in them.
Good and evil confront each other in his prose with numbers rather than concepts: how many deaths per day while waiting for the ultimate bomb? What percentage of failure according to the combinations of variables? The author weaves around each one a litany of words that reveal it in intriguing touches. Why does one of the physicists always keep his suitcase unpacked? Why does someone else wipe their glasses before speaking?
The humanity of each person, tested, doubts in the face of the dizziness of the total weapon which must respond to the exterminations underway in Europe and Japan. Oppenheimer fears the abyss and goes to the cinema every night to watch Casablanca, forging his resolve to act like Humphrey Bogart: if only the bomb were romantic! “There is a scientific variable – how the bomb is made –, an economic variable – how much the bomb costs –, a military variable – how to use the bomb – there is even an ethical variable – to use or not to use the bomb,” the American president’s envoy explains to him. Equating her moral dilemma, he helps her to release the energy from “within from within from within” and unleash hell.