Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021. Benjamín Labatut’s extraordinary imagination digs deep into the territory between fact and fiction, progress and destruction, genius and madness. Translated by Adrian Nathan West.

Albert Einstein opens a letter sent to him from the Eastern Front during the First World War. Inside, he finds the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity. The genius mathematician Alexander Grothendieck tries to cut all ties with the world, terrified of the horror his discoveries might cause…The mesmerising When We Cease to Understand the World uses a blend of fiction and historical fact to explore the stories of the great minds who expanded our notions of the possible.

The 2021 International Booker Prize
Published by
Pushkin Press
Publication date

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Benjamín Labatut

Benjamín Labatut

About the Author

Benjamín Labatut was born in Rotterdam in 1980 and grew up in The Hague, Buenos Aires and Lima.
More about Benjamín Labatut
Adrian Nathan West

Adrian Nathan West

About the Translator

Adrian Nathan West is the translator of more than 20 books from Spanish, Catalan and German.
More about Adrian Nathan West

Benjamín Labatut on When We Cease to Understand the World

‘[Being nominated for the International Booker Prize] is like being hit by an earthquake, but, at the same time, being very, very far away from its epicentre. You feel a slight tremor beneath your feet, and you imagine that buildings have crumbled, that people are caught in the wreckage, while others are desperately looking for a lost pet among the rubble. And yet you know that you are safe from it all, a world away, even though you are also aware, from personal experience, that there might be aftershocks, and that the next one, god forbid, might bring your house down on top of you.

‘This is a book about the limits of science and the borders of thought, a strange book, neither a novel, nor a short story collection, nor an essay, that walks the thin line between fact and fiction, and that uses science as an excuse to speak about those aspects of the human experience that neither words nor equations can tame.’

Read the full interview here

This is a book about the limits of science and the borders of thought, a strange book, neither a novel, nor a short story collection, nor an essay

What the judges said

‘A Sebaldian book of grippingly narrated stories on science and scientists that cumulatively become a meditation on the history of human destruction. “How did we get here?” it asks, and answers in utterly original and unexpected ways.’

What the critics said

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times Book Review

‘A gripping meditation on knowledge and hubris… [Labatut] casts the flickering light of gothic fiction on 20th-century science. In five free-floating vignettes, he illuminates the kinship of knowledge and destruction, brilliance and madness… His prose is masterfully paced and vividly rendered in Adrian Nathan West’s magnetic translation.’ 

Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker

‘[When We Cease to Understand the World] is as compact and potent as a capsule of cyanide, a poison whose origin story takes up much of the opening chapter – the first of many looping forays into the wonders and horrors unleashed by science in the past few centuries… It is a meditation in prose that bears a familial relationship to the work of W. G. Sebald or Olga Tokarczuk: a sequence of accounts that skew biographical but also venture into the terrain of imagination… . The stories in this book nest inside one another, their points of contact with reality almost impossible to fully determine.’ 

Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

‘Darkly dazzling… [Labatut] illustrates the unbreakable bond between horror and beauty, life-saving and life-destroying…. This book – as haunting as it is erudite – stubbornly insists on connecting the wonders of scientific advancement to the atrocities of history.’ 

Publishers Weekly

‘Labatut’s stylish English-language debut offers an embellished, heretical, and thoroughly engrossing account of the personalities and creative madness that gave rise to some of the 20th century’s greatest scientific discoveries… [Labatut’s] subject is the all-consuming human drive to discover, and the danger therein… Hard to pin down and all the more enjoyable for it, this unique work is one to be savored.’ 

Philip Pullman, New Statesman

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut is the strangest and most original book I’ve read for years. It hovers in a state between fiction and non-fiction, or wave and particle, and makes an account of modern mathematics and science into something as eerie as a great ghost story.’

When We Cease To Understand the World

Fiona Shaw reads from 'When We Cease To Understand the World' by Benjamin Labatut


Actor Fiona Shaw reads an extract from When We Cease To Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, translated by Adrian Nathan West and shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize.  

This video was created for Edinburgh International Book Festival in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and directed by Blanche McIntyre.

When We Cease to Understand the World