Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: “Turing’s Delirium”

July 27, 2006
Roscoe, NY

Sometimes when reading a novel, I make little charts and diagrams on the 4×6 cards I use for bookmarks and general note-taking. Here's a table I made while reading Edmundo Paz Soldán's Turing's Delirium (trans. Lisa Carter, Houghton Mifflin, 2006). The book has seven main characters, and each of the the 44 chapters (and Epilogue) is told from one of the character's points of view.

Miguel Sáenz 171116 2329353944
Ruth Sáenz 121418 253341
Flavia Sáenz 2817 243240
Albert 31019 263138
Ramírez-Graham 4920 273442
Judge Cardona 51321 283643
Kandinsky 61522 3037Epilogue

I read this novel partially because I'll read just about anything with the word Turing in the title, and also because I was intrigued by the otherwise so-so review it got in the Times Book Review (July 16, 2006, p. 9). Bolivian novelist Edmundo Paz Soldán has apparently set novels in the fictional city of Río Fugitivo before. In Turing's Delirium the city is beset by demonstrations and cyber-attacks. Labor unionists have joined forces with anti-globalization hackers to protest the increased domination of foreign companies in the country's economy.

Miguel Sáenz, whose nickname is Turing, is a cryptanalysist who works for the Black Chamber, a government agency that decodes secret messages originating among enemies of the state. By ignoring the moral consequences of his work, Miguel is the perfect technocrat.

Miguel's wife Ruth is also a cryptanalysist. She once worked for the Black Chamber until her conscience made her leave. She has since accumulated a coded book of the government's crimes, including her husband's role in them.

Flavia, their daughter, is a dread-locked hacker who runs a Web site devoted to the undergound movement and who logs many hours in an online community called Playground. But who's side is she on exactly?

Albert, the founder of the Black Chamber in the 1970s, now lies in bed in a permanent delirious state, his mind fried by decades of code breaking. Where did Albert come from? Most people think he's CIA, but he may also have a Nazi past.

Ramirez-Graham, current head of the Black Chamber, was born in Bolivia but grew up in Kansas and worked for the NSA. He has moved Miguel to a job in the archives, but for what reason? Could Miguel know too much? Or not enough?

Judge Gustavo Cardona, former minister of justice, is haunted by the death of his cousin Mirtha, killed in a political demonstration against the government. He wants to find the cryptanalysist responsible for her death, and Ruth Sáenz may know exactly who that is.

Kandinsky, super hacker, is leader of two parallel rebellions. The Restoration movement in Playground was impressive, but now it looks like just a practice run for the Resistence in the real world. The only thing that can stop the revolution is Kandinsky's worsening carpel tunnel syndrome.

Edmundo Paz Soldán is part of a literary movement called McOndo, whose name derives from the fictional town of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, but which reflects the desires of younger Latin American writers to abandon "magic realism" in favor of more urban and modern settings, filled with familiar products and pop culture. Turing's Delirium exists in a realm where the McDonald's seems quite real, but identity is amorphous. Not only do the younger characters seemlessly bounce between multiple online personas, but many of the older characters have slippery pasts and uncertain futures. "It is your fate: code you were and code you will become." (p. 279)