Blind lights by Benjamin Labatut, translated from Spanish (Chile) by Robert Amutio. Threshold, 220 pp., € 20. In bookstores on September 3.
“This book is a work of fiction based on real events. The amount of fiction increases as the narrative advances. ” Thus Benjamin Labatut presents his first novel, a dive into the world of science, which takes us from Prussian blue to cyanide, invented by a brilliant chemist, Scheele, and to arsenic. Each discovery being a step forward for humanity and a serious threat to its survival, one has the feeling of an endless screw operated by mad scientists. Cast: physicists Karl Schwarzschild and Erwin Schrödinger, not to mention Heisenberg, mathematicians Shinichi Mochizuki and Grothendieck. Cl.D.
During a medical examination carried out in the months leading up to the Nuremberg Trials, doctors noticed that Hermann Göring’s fingernails and toenails were a furious red. They thought – wrongly – that this color was the result of his addiction to dihydrocodeine, an analgesic from which he took more than a hundred pills a day. According to William Burroughs, the effect of this substance was similar to that of heroin and at least twice as powerful as that of codeine, with electric notes close to those of cocaine, which compelled American doctors to cure Göring of his addiction before he can appear in court. It was not easy. At the time of his capture by the Allies, Göring was dragging a suitcase that contained not only the varnish with which the Nazi leader painted his nails when he disguised himself as Nero, but also more than twenty thousand doses of his favorite drug, pretty much everything. that German production of this drug remained at the end of World War II. His addiction was by no means exceptional: virtually all Wehrmacht troops received methamphetamine tablets with their rations. Marketed under the name Pervitin, they were ingested by soldiers to keep them awake for weeks on end, completely dazed, alternating states of manic rage and nightmarish lethargy, a tension that led to many of them irrepressible attacks of euphoria: “There is absolute silence. Everything becomes insignificant and unreal. I feel completely weightless, I felt like I was flying above my plane ”, wrote a Luftwaffe pilot years later, as if remembering the silent rapture of an ecstatic sight, not the dirty days of war. The German writer Heinrich Böll wrote several letters to his family from the front asking for more doses of the drug to be sent: “It’s hard here, he wrote to his parents on November 9, 1939, and I hope you will understand if I can only write to you every two or three days. Today I do it mainly to ask you for more Pervitine… I love you, huh. ” On May 20, 1940, he wrote them another long and passionate letter, ending with the same request: “Can you get me some more Pervitin so that I have some ahead of time?” Two months later, his parents received a single shaky line: “If you can, please send me more Pervitin.” We know today that it was with methamphetamines that Germany galvanized the unstoppable assault of the Blitzkrieg; It is also known that many soldiers suffered from psychotic attacks as they felt the bitterness of the tablets crumbling in their mouths. On the other hand, it was something very different that the top leaders of the Reich tasted when the blitzkrieg gave way to the firestorms of Allied bombardments, when the Russian winter took in its ice the tracks of the tanks and when the Führer ordered to destroy everything that was of value inside the national territory, leaving only the scorched earth to the invading troops. Confronted with absolute defeat, overwhelmed by the image of horror they had called upon the world, they chose a quick way out: bite cyanide capsules and die breathlessly in the stale smell of bitter almond that emanates of this poison.
A wave of suicides swept through Germany during the last months of the war. In the month of April 1945 alone, three thousand eight hundred people committed suicide in Berlin. A collective panic gripped the inhabitants of the small town of Demmin, some three hours north of the capital, when the retreating German troops blasted the bridges that connected the town with the rest of the country, transforming the region. in cul-de-sac and leaving the population trapped by the three rivers which surrounded it, abandoned to the cruelty of the Red Army. Hundreds of men, women and children took their own lives in just three days. Whole families walked into the waters of the Tollense, the youngest children carrying stones in their school bags, all tied at the waist, as if they were going to participate in a terrifying game of tug of war. The chaos reached such a point that Russian troops – who had hitherto been busy ransacking town houses, burning buildings and raping women – were ordered to stem the tide of suicides. ; the soldiers had to save on three different occasions the life of a woman who tried to hang herself from one of the branches of the gigantic oak planted in her garden, between the roots of which she had already buried her three children after having sprinkled their cookies – ultimate pleasure – rat poison […]. This same desire for death seized the Nazi staff: fifty-three generals of the army, fourteen of the air force and eleven of the navy committed suicide, in addition to the minister of the ‘Education, Bernhard Rust, the Minister of Justice, Otto Thierack, Marshal Walter Model, the “desert fox”, Erwin Rommel and, of course, the Führer himself. Others hesitated, like Hermann Göring, and were captured alive, even if they only succeeded in repelling the inevitable. When doctors declared him fit to participate in his trial, Göring was tried by the Nuremberg Tribunal and sentenced to hang. He asked to be shot: he didn’t want to die like a common criminal. When he learned that he was going to be denied his last will, he killed himself by biting a cyanide capsule that he had hidden in a jar of gomina, beside which he left a note in which he explained that he had chosen to kill himself. himself “Like the great Hannibal”. The Allies tried to erase all traces of its existence. They removed the shards of glass from Göring’s lips and sent his clothes, personal effects and naked corpse to the municipal crematorium at Ostfriedhof cemetery in Munich, where one of the ovens was lit for cremation, mixing his ashes with the dust of thousands of political prisoners and opponents of the Nazi regime guillotined in Stadelheim prison, to those of disabled children and psychiatric patients murdered by the Aktion T4 euthanasia program, and countless victims of concentration camps. The little that remained of his body was scattered at night in the waters of the Wenzbach, a small river chosen at random from a map to prevent his grave from becoming a place of pilgrimage for future generations. But all these efforts were in vain […]. In June 2016, an Argentinian spent over three thousand euros on Reichsmarschall silk boxer shorts. A few months later, the same individual offered twenty-six thousand euros for the copper and zinc cylinder that had enveloped the glass bulb that Göring had crushed between his teeth on October 15, 1946.
The elite of the National Socialist Party received similar blisters at the end of the last concert the Berlin Philharmonic gave on April 12, 1945, before the fall of the city. Albert Speer, Minister of War Armaments and Production and official architect of the Third Reich, organized a special program which included the Violin Concerto in D major by Beethoven, followed by the Symphony No.4 by Bruckner – “the romantic” – and ended, appropriately, with Brünnhilde’s aria which closes the third act of Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner, during which the Valkyrie immolates herself by throwing herself into a huge funeral pyre whose flames will eventually consume the world of men, the Hall of Walhalla with all its warriors killed in battle and the entire pantheon of gods. As the audience walked towards the exit, Brünnhilde’s howls continuing to ring in their ears, members of the German young people Hitler Youth – children as young as ten, since teenagers were dying on the barricades – distributed cyanide bulbs in small wicker baskets, as if they were offerings from a liturgy. Some of these blisters were used by Göring, Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler to commit suicide, but many other top Reich leaders chose to shoot themselves in the head while biting the blisters, fearing the poison had no effect or were deliberately sabotaged, inflicting on them not the instant and painless death they desired, but the slow agony they deserved. Hitler was so convinced that his doses had been tampered with that he decided to verify their effectiveness by giving one to his German Shepherd, his beloved Blondi who had accompanied him to the Führerbunker, where she slept at the foot of his bed, enjoying of all kinds of privileges. The Führer preferred to poison his faithful companion rather than drop him into the hands of Russian troops […], but he did not have the courage to do it himself; he asked his personal physician to break one of the blisters in the animal’s mouth. […]
The effect of cyanide is so overwhelming that there is only one testimony to its taste, left at the beginning of the XXIe century by MP Prasad, a thirty-two-year-old Indian silversmith who managed to write three lines after swallowing it: “Doctors, potassium cyanide. I tasted it. It burns the tongue and has a pungent taste ”, read the note that was found next to his body in the hotel room he had rented to kill himself. The liquid form of the poison, known in Germany as Prussic acid (blue acid), is highly volatile; it boils at twenty-six degrees centigrade and leaves a delicate almond scent in the air, sweet but slightly bitter, that not everyone manages to distinguish, because this ability is determined by a specific gene of which forty percent of mankind is bereft. It is probable that, because of this evolutionary chance, a good part of those murdered with Zyklon B at Auschwitz, Majdanek and Mauthausen did not even notice the smell of cyanide filling the gas chambers, while others died smelling the same scent that the men who had organized their extermination tasted when they bit into their deadly blisters.
Several decades earlier, a predecessor of the poison used by the Nazis in the camps – Zyklon A – had been sprayed as a pesticide on orange trees in the state of California, and used to delous the trains in which tens of thousands of immigrants Mexicans had gone into hiding when entering the United States. The wood of the wagons was tinged with a magnificent blue color, the same one can still be seen today on some bricks at Auschwitz; these two blues refer to the true origin of cyanide, which was created in 1782 from the first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian blue.
Blind lights by Benjamin Labatut
Translated from the Spanish (Chile) by Robert Amutio. Threshold, 220 pp., € 20. In bookstores on September 3.