When We Cease to Understand the World

Finalist, National Book Awards 2021 for Translated Literature

ISBN 9781681375663
New York Review Books
Benjamín Labatut

Benjamín Labatut was born in Rotterdam in 1980 and grew up in The Hague, Buenos Aires, and Lima. He published two award-winning works of fiction prior to When We Cease to Understand the World, which is his first book to be translated into English. (Photo credit: Juana Gómez) More about this author >

Adrian Nathan West

Adrian Nathan West is a writer and literary translator living in Spain. More about this author >

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Translated from the Spanish


Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear.

At a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail, Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of the scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible.

Judges Citation

When We Cease to Understand the World is remarkable in its inventive energy. Benjamín Labatut, ably translated by Adrian Nathan West, takes familiar historical facts and makes of them a powerful springboard. The result is thrilling: a brilliant rumination on the sometimes bittersweet nature of intellectual achievement. This important work seeks understanding through demystification; how it succeeds is engrossing.


Benjamín Labatut and Adrian Nathan West, 2021 NBAwards Translated Literature Finalists, read from WHEN WE CEASE TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD