Prix Goncourt–winning novelist Ferrari continues his program of interrogating history to expose brittle truths about our nature.
In Where I Left My Soul (2012), not published in the U.S., Ferrari, a sometime professor of philosophy, took the occasion of the Algerian War and the collapse of the Fourth Republic to examine justifications for political violence, including torture and assassination. In this book, he travels into the heart of another evil, writing a long address to the philosopher and physicist Werner Heisenberg, who, in his explorations of the nature of the universe, “looked over God’s shoulder and saw, through the thin material surface of things, the place where their materiality dissolves.” As the protagonist, himself a young philosopher navigating a chaotic world, looks many years after the fact into Heisenberg’s life—and not for nothing, perhaps seeking to forget some of what he had seen, did Heisenberg develop his famous “uncertainty principle”—he unearths the dark forces that shattered Europe in 1914, a time when it was revealed that God, for all his games, is “also the master of horror.” The narrator watches, himself a little horrified, as Heisenberg is gradually co-opted until, finally, he is implicated in the Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb, sheltering on a remote island in the North Sea so windswept that no plants will grow. In the end, Heisenberg is reduced to justifications of the kind usually advanced by lesser, “despicable men trying to rely on their own incompetence in order to draw moral advantage from it,” though Ferrari also offers the possibility of a small moment of grace, if not moral redemption. The epistolary effect of a narrative addressed to its subject is daring and uncommon, but in this case it works, part accusation, part plea, part quest and inquest.
An elegant, cheerless meditation on how even the brightest people can find it in themselves to accommodate evil on the way to annihilation.