The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeshke (book review).

This month I have a novelette being published in German, my second story in German and my longest translated story to date. This piqued my interest in German Science Fiction, so I took the opportunity to get hold of Wolfgang Jeschke’s award-winning 2005 novel ‘Die Cusanus Spiel’. My German isn’t good enough to read the novel so, in fact, I got the 2013 English version, ‘The Cusanus Game’, translated by Ross Benjamin.


The book is set in the mid-twenty-first century, after a nuclear disaster has irradiated much of central Europe and the whole world is suffering from global warming, rising sea levels, invasive mutated vegetation and associated environmental problems. Societal problems of mass migration, racial intolerance, looting and associated disorders add to the chaos. It would be easy to throw all of those problems into the plot for background effect but, throughout the novel, Jeschke portrays the effects of these multiple problems in stark detail as they affect his characters, principally botanist Domenica Ligrina, allowing a high-resolution picture of his society to be built up. His descriptive work is masterful, the plot is never rushed but we are allowed to experience the splendour and the decay of Rome, Venice and numerous other locations as Domenica lives in and travels between them. The local culture and populace, the architecture and clothing are all brought vividly to life. The prose is fluid and stately with an air of gravitas that is thoroughly compelling.

Domenica is recruited by the Istituto Pontificale della Rinascita della Creazione di Dio San Francesco, a Vatican-sponsored programme linked in with several scientific institutes, whose purpose is to preserve and even recover the biodiversity of Europe. It’s clear from the beginning, without giving anything away, that this will somehow involve travelling into the past to retrieve seeds and biological samples. What makes the concept particularly interesting is the way Jeshke builds up to this. There’s no leaping straight into a time machine but Domenica is gradually introduced to the concept by obscure comments, odd happenings and the explication of related technologies. Interspersing Dominica’s narrative at infrequent intervals is the story of Nicolaus Cusanus, a medieval Cardinal with an interest in science whose life intersects with Domenica’s through history books and monuments. It’s wonderfully subtle and intriguingly woven into the story.

There’s a sense of inevitability about the entire volume as we see hints of timelines criss-crossing, travellers moving back and forth and intersecting at different points in their lives, disasters that may possibly be averted. At the same time, there is much technical and philosophical discussion on the nature of time and the multiverse, leading us to doubt whether what we think might happen is actually going to happen or may happen instead in an alternate reality. I often find books that deal with this kind of concept to be frustrating in that often the author uses it as an excuse to get away with all kinds of unlikely happenings in the plot on the grounds that anything could happen. That is not the case with Jeshke’s plot. He uses the concepts intelligently, building up a complex but reasoned mechanism for his technology. It has a breathtaking scope and grandeur that is nonetheless woven closely to the lives of the protagonists.

I couldn’t tell you if there is anything quintessentially German about this novel. It is definitely Eurocentric but spends much of the time in Italy and the Netherlands. There is a refreshing multi-lingualism to the book with street and building names galore, phrases in Italian, German and Dutch and a fair amount of Latin thrown in. It truly felt like a tour of Europe with a patient and knowledgeable guide. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Gareth D. Jones

May 2016

(pub: TOR/Forge, 2013. 538 page hardback. Price: $25.99 (US) $29.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1908-1)

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