The human machine

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey, Faber, RRP£17.99, 288 pages

Peter Carey’s new novel is about grief and automata, about death, life, and lifeless energy. It has two interlinked plots. One is narrated by Catherine Gehrig, a museum expert in clockwork, whose married lover dies suddenly, leaving her in the desperate state of secret and unacknowledged mourning. The Head Curator of Horology, Matthew Croft, turns out to know more than she suspected and gives her a new project, the reconstruction of an automaton, collected in 1854 in the Black Forest by Henry Brandling, whose diaries form the other narrative.

Henry set out, like a father in a Grimm fairy tale, to find the object desired by his sickly son, whose life he believes will be saved by it. The object in question is Vaucanson’s ingenious duck – “a clever soulless creature which would be made to flap its wings, drink water, digest grain, and defecate ...” Henry is searching out a clockmaker and becomes involved with a mysterious German called Sumper, who turns out to have worked on an infallible calculating machine invented by an English genius called Albert Cruikshank.

Cruikshank’s search for automatic perfection turns out also to be driven by ferocious grief – his wife, two girls and a baby boy were drowned as a result of human errors in Admiralty maps. He means to make calculations that are immune to human error. Catherine steals and reads Brandling’s diaries. She is watched by an assistant called Amanda who is also unbalanced by mourning – in her case for the planet, as she obsessively watches live film of the oil leaking into the Bay of Mexico.

It is a cliché that art galleries are the new human replacement for churches. We go there to experience timelessness, or at least an inhuman duration. We go there for contemplation, both of extraordinary human skills, and of beauty and meaning that are not ourselves. I think there is also a kind of substitute religious activity in the increasing importance we attach to human artefacts, their separateness, their endurance, their independence of their makers. The long lines of patient people waiting to be seen at the Antiques Roadshow – which itself takes place in cathedrals and stately houses – seem to be part of a kind of folk religion.

The automata in Carey’s novel have a riddling importance – there is a secret swan, on automatic water ingesting automatic fish, there is more than a suggestion that a calculating engine may be hidden in the wrappings of the automaton being reconstructed by Catherine and Amanda.

This is not an easy book to read. I was haunted throughout by the sense of a pattern of ideas that I couldn’t grasp. At the other extreme, Carey creates Catherine’s lonely and obsessive misery so brilliantly that it is both painful and claustrophobic for the reader. The first page is arresting and shocking and it goes on that way. We share her pain and we also share Henry’s pain for his sick son – though it is interesting that Catherine doesn’t. She remarks that it is hard to imagine how one could care as much about a child as about a lover. She is completely convincing and not altogether nice.

When I got to the end I had a revelation. I noted that the last name in the acknowledgments was, “of course, Charles Babbage”. I know a little but not a lot about Babbage. Google and Wikipedia provided me with information about his calculating machines, the difference engine, which was never finished in his lifetime because – as is the case with the fictitious machine designed by Albert Cruikshank – the British government funding was discontinued.

Looking up automata on Wikipedia produced images both of the duck and of the swan – as well as many other images of lifeless energy – which suddenly pulled into focus the overall architecture of Carey’s project. In Babbage’s day “computers” were the youths and boys who did all the calculations for the tables of tides and stars, which contained human errors. Now our world depends on calculating machines. I used mine to research Babbage. I suddenly understood the melancholy wit underlying Catherine’s grim destruction, one by one, of the emails and love letters stored in hers.

My rapid research into Babbage led me to his Ninth Bridgwater treatise, which I was able to procure by the next day, through another computing miracle, Amazon’s one-day one-click. In this treatise Babbage examines, inter alia, miracles, and computes the enormous odds against a dead man returning to life.

Carey’s world is always interesting and thought-provoking. His splendid Oscar and Lucinda (1988) also combined a wonderful artefact – a glass cathedral – with the mathematics of gambling, and religious riddles and puzzles. At the end of The Chemistry of Tears Amanda produces another vision of what may be concealed in the hull of the automaton. There is a mystery I haven’t understood about a blue cube. The novel is baffling as well as exciting. It is a unique combination of raw human passion and complicated puzzling about human ingenuity.

AS Byatt is author of ‘Ragnarok: The End of the Gods’ (Canongate)

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