The most striking thing about this translation – although not necessarily an unusual phenomenon – is that the title is completely different to the original. In German, Juli Zeh’s third novel is named Schilf after its detective character. Meaning literally ‘reeds’, the word is fabulously misleading. Whereas Dark Matter takes us in a very different direction, pointing us at the two physicists who open the book and instantly suggesting a thriller. In the States, meanwhile, it’s coming out as In Free Fall.
I started reading the book as a precisely observed story of two claustrophobically close friends who have chosen different directions in life. Sebastian is married and has settled for a staid career teaching physics at a provincial university and defending a near-dead theory in his free time. While Oskar is a high-flying bohemian looking for the physics to end all physics in Geneva. Zeh treats us to their tense conversations, always presenting the science and philosophy in comprehensible portions. It’s a beautifully unhurried opening, a whole forty pages dedicated to dinner with Sebastian’s family.
And then – Juli Zeh turns up the pressure. Sebastian is at the end of his tether, a dead black cat by the side of the road an all too clear indication that something has gone badly wrong. His son has been kidnapped and he is told, “Dabbeling must go”. So he kills a man.
And then? That’s when the book started to disappoint me. From then on, the camera zooms away from the desperate Sebastian and into the police station. Yes, the characters are beautifully done, a valkyrie of a detective by the name of Rita Skura and the shambling and once eponymous Schilf as far from classic whodunit fodder as you can imagine. Yes, they solve the crime almost by accident and we find out more about their inner and private lives than about their criminological methods. And yes, we get something like closure at the end.
But I was simply more interested in the two physicists than I was in the crime. I didn’t want Dark Matter to be a crime novel. I wanted to read about Oskar and Sebastian and resented any time devoted to Schilf and his ex-pupil Skura. I wanted to see whose theory would win out, who would gain the moral upper hand in their fascinating relationship. And although we do get all this at some point, Juli Zeh makes us wait.
Christine Lo’s translation certainly reflects the very high register of the original, which is not always to my taste. In Zeh’s world there are no butterfly collectors, only lepidopterists, and in Lo’s translation all the pigeons are doves, no doubt fittingly enough. But I did love all the birds and wildlife dotted through the story, a nice gimmick that adds Hitchcockian depth to the narrative.
So it’s a not really crime novel that is too much of a crime novel – probably what’s called “intelligent crime writing” and similar to her debut Eagles and Angels, also available in English. Exploring guilt and innocence and all that. You can catch Juli Zeh in conversation with crime writer David Guttridge at the book’s launch at the London Goethe Institut on 11 March.