Erasmus Levine’s mother, believing her son was destined for great things, named him after the famous humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam. His talent for encryption is recognised at an early stage and he is recruited to train at West Point and later is sent to join a newly created team with the purpose of saving the world after the attacks of 9/11. He is appointed as the carrier of a briefcase containing nuclear codes and ordered to stay at the side of the President of the United States of America at all times.
Erasmus’ operational boss is Edelweiss who gives daily briefings, and he in turn is subject to a higher authority, the mysterious Alpha. All the proceedings are shrouded in secrecy with a president supposed to be committed to nuclear disarmament.
The threat of a nuclear Armageddon hangs like a pall over the narrative where two thousand of the world’s warheads are at their highest state of alert to engage with or against each other, and where the combined explosive force of American missiles alone can wipe out mankind.
Erasmus’ talent for encryption is almost like an affliction as he throws up on several occasions on discovering the seriousness of his discoveries. And unable to bear the tension anymore, he goes AWOL, the apparent shock of possible global destruction and the realisation that the world’s nuclear weapons could be harnessed and then rerouted, confirming his so-called pacifism.
The characters in the novel are larger than life. The supposedly sensitive Erasmus, for example, clinically smashes a new recruit’s head into a metal floor ‘not once but repeatedly’ when puzzling over an encryption. And Erasmus’ wife Amba and family are too sketchily delineated with his children given the unlikely names of Unity, Duality and Trinity, as if they are mere configurations. And there are irritants in this translation from the Swedish when the protagonist is addressed repeatedly as ‘my treasure’ by Ingrid Oskarsson, the cryptologist and Erasmus’ old academic supervisor.
With the possible intention of adding gravitas to the thriller element of the book, the author inserts many cultural references. Russian spies using Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as a ciphering tool for instance had a profound influence on the young Erasmus, and Hollywood films are used as codes in speeches. There is a lot of wandering through nuclear history and Erasmus dreams of Oppenheimer and being a survivor of the Enola Bay. And his thesis in philosophy, The Atom: A Moral Dilemma, is used as a trope bringing in references to the Bhagavad Gita and the ‘destroyer of worlds’ and Brueghel’s sixteenth century prophetic masterpiece The Triumph of Death, based on the Plague. This juxtaposition of history with the present seems rather contrived.
The sense of foreboding, however, is well captured where one feels that even the security codes are not really secure with many moles lurking. But at times the pursuit of Erasmus, as in the skiing chase, appears like a pastiche of a James Bond movie. The denouement towards the end suffers from the feeding of too much information and back story all at once which would have been better served filtered through the narrative in small doses earlier on, and would have maintained interest in the story’s unfolding.
The author, a Swedish cultural journalist based in Stockholm, has written two previous non-fiction books on technology and his knowledge in that area shows clearly in this his first novel. But for the average reader it could appear as information overload at the expense of narrative drive and the sacrificing of well-rounded characters. The supreme irony is at the end when Erasmus shuns all the technology and uses old parchment to pen his story.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 30/11/19.