On The Cusanus Game

The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke

Written by Ross Benjamin, Translator

In The Cusanus Game, German author Wolfgang Jeschke tells a story at once exciting and philosophically far-reaching. In the mid-twenty-first century, a nuclear disaster near the French-German border has devastated a broad swath of Europe. In Rome – a city increasingly beset by the disastrous consequences of climate change and overrun by neo-fascist gangs preying on foreign refugees who have fled from the intolerable environmental conditions to the south – Domenica Ligrina has just completed her studies in botany. She and other scientists are recruited by the Vatican to take part in a secret time travel project: to journey to fifteenth-century Germany and collect plants and seeds with which the ravaged nature of the present can be revived. In Cologne of 1451, however, Domenica is accused of witchcraft and condemned to burn at the stake. She places her hope in Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus, to whom she writes letters from prison.

Domenica has long been fascinated with the remarkably prescient ideas of this theologian-philosopher, who was a confidant of the Pope. As Jeschke shows, Cusanus’s cosmological thinking anticipates the theories of the multiverse in contemporary theoretical physics that are central to the plot and structure of The Cusanus Game. The game of the title was invented by Cusanus (and discussed in his work De Ludo Globi) to teach its players important principles of life and the world: The object is to throw a ball with a slight dent in it onto a board with concentric circles such that it spirals toward and comes to rest in the center; however, the dent ensures that the ball will never reach the center. A character in the novel explains the point of the game as training its players “to sustain defeats lightheartedly and good-humoredly” and yet to keep striving closer to the goal of perfection despite the obstacles that the fundamental unpredictability of events will always put in our path.

Domenica’s journey turns out not only to embody these themes, but also to mimic the “erratic path” of the ball in Cusanus’s game. As she lives out different possible timelines in alternate universes and repeatedly faces the dark abysses of human violence, destruction, and suffering, she seeks to set our world on a more sustainable course. She learns that every choice creates another parallel universe, but that not all universes can survive: like a living organism, the multiverse is constantly evolving, and Domenica eventually encounters extraordinary beings that play a role in its self-correcting process of development.

The Cusanus Game is a powerful novel of ideas seamlessly woven into a time travel adventure story. Its elaborately labyrinthine plot mirrors the spiraling game board as previously narrated events repeatedly follow new trajectories, while at the same time the protagonist’s experiences lead her to ever greater understanding and sense of purpose. The interplay between these different levels – personal and cosmological stakes, scientific and theological perspectives, environmental and metaphysical missions – makes the novel a profound and thrilling read.

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