Sunday, March 14, 2010

This bitter struggle between accuracy and vagueness

It was generally expected that Commandant Adrien Danglard would resolve the puzzle, partly because he was Adamsberg's longest-standing colleague, having spent years alongside him in a relationship which allowed for no concealment or precautions, and partly because Danglard couldn't stand Unsolved Questions. These Unsolved Questions cropped up at every turn, like dandelions, turning into a host of uncertainties, fuelling his anxiety and making his life a misery. Danglard worked ceaselessly to eliminate the Unsolved Questions, like a maniac who keeps trying to remove non-existent specks from his coat. The gigantic task usually led him to a dead end and then to a feeling of powerlessness; the powerlessness, in turn, drove him down to the basement of the building, where the bottle of white wine was concealed, the only thing that could help him deal with any Unsolved Question that was too thorny. If Danglard took the trouble to conceal his bottle so far away, it was not for fear that Adamsberg would discover it, since the commissaire was, by some supernatural means, perfectly aware of his secret. It was simply that going up and down the spiral staircase to the basement was sufficient of an obstacle for Danglard to postpone calling on his heart-starter until later. So he patiently gnawed away at his doubts at the same time as he shewed incessantly at the ends of his pencils.

Adamsberg had developed a theory running exactly contrary to the pencil-chewing, which posited that the number of uncertainties a single person can support at the same time cannot multiply indefinitely, and reaches a maximum of three or four. That did not mean that there were no more, but that only three or four uncertainties could be in proper working order simultaneously inside a human brain. Danglard's mania for eradicating them was therefore futile, since no sooner would he have resolved two Unsolved Questions than another two would take their place, and he would not have had to concern himself with these if he had had the wisdom to stick with the old ones.

Danglard had no time for this hypothesis. He suspected Adamsberg of liking uncertainty to the point of inactivity. Of liking it to the point of deliberately creating it himself, to cloud the clearest perspectives, for the sheer pleasure of wandering irresponsibly through them, in the same way he liked walking in the rain. If one didn't know the answer, if one didn't know anything, why bother one's head about it at all?

The sharp conflicts between Danglard's precise "Why?" and the commissaire's nonchalant "I don't know" punctuated the squad's investigations. None of the others tried to understand the core of this bitter struggle between accuracy and vagueness, but they all favoured one side or another. The positivists thought that Adamsberg dragged out investigations, taking them wilfully into the fog, leaving his colleagues trailing behind him without instructions or road maps. The others, the cloud shovellers — thus named after a traumatic visit by the squad to Quebec — thought that the commissaire's results quite justified the vagaries of the investigation, even if the essentials of his work methods escaped them. According to mood, or to the circumstances of the moment, which might inspire either jumpiness or relaxation, someone could be positivist one day and cloud shoveller the next or vice versa. Only Adamsberg and Danglard, the two principal antagonists, never varied their position.


— from This Night's Foul Work, by Fred Vargas.

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy Fred Vargas? This is the fourth book of hers I've enjoyed since last summer, and I think they're near perfect: delightfully odd and complicated and subtle characters, philosophical outlook and sly humour, and general I-can't-quite-put-my-finger-on-it charm. The stories are quite good too.
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