'You see,' he said very quietly, 'a perfect system can never be perfect. A system has to be imperfect to be perfect. A little corruption, a little bribery, a little hypocrisy, a little string-pulling, a little blackmail are good things. They provide perfect systems with those little imperfections, those little windows through which new mutations can fly in and inseminate our formal gardens. Without them, without those blessed little windows of imperfections, all perfectly planned systems are rigid. And everything rigid ends in chaos. One tiny little fact can topple a gigantic theory. The infinitesimal, misregarded by calculus, little imponderabilia, little pebbles which the priest, the militiaman, or the paymaster drops into the pond - making some insignificantly tiny little waves that disturb the heart of a tiny little man - can cause the whole system to vibrate with unplanned harmonics, increased perturbations, overlapping resonances, through which chaos sneaks in.'
Thus pleads the character nicknamed the Minister of Imponderabilia in Stefan Themerson's impossible novel 'The Mystery of the Sardine' (1986). At first the book seems to be a detective story with too much chaos sneaked in. Its plot, fragmentary and nonlinear, contains a mystery and is littered with clues, but it gradually becomes clear that they will never add up to any satisfactory solution. In fact, to approach this as a conventional story would make for a frustrating read. Better, perhaps, to view it as philosophy in narrative form - a meta-mystery if you like.
Avant-garde writer, filmmaker and philosopher, Themerson is often compared to Raymond Queneau and Lewis Carroll for his playful blending of philosophy and fiction, language and logic. Born in Poland, he lived most of his life in London, but was known chiefly in the Netherlands (after being introduced by W.F. Hermans). His work, the fruit of close collaboration with his wife Franciszka, defies classification, but always abounds in wit and provocative ideas.
Lacking a central storyline or clear protagonist, 'The Mystery of the Sardine' introduces a host of eccentric characters in a series of loosely connected vignettes. Besides their various narrative entanglements, all of them have their private philosophies - their own particular mental modus operandi - which Themerson weaves in quite naturally, and which in a way make up the real story.
Besides the Minister of Imponderabilia, a vaguely influential figure in the Polish communist elite, other characters include the twelve-year-old mathematical genius who leaves a treatise / loveletter called 'Euclid was an Ass' (a great piece of romantic mathematics - and no, in this case that's not a contradiction in terms) for the girl he loves before drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. There's the logical-positivist philosopher (whose name, by the way, is Chesterton-Brown) who loses his legs in an unexplained bomb explosion involving a black poodle, and whose wife has a particularly strange philosophy of her own.
...she lifted up her eyes and said: 'Look, the Earth is rising. How beautiful!'
A pale circle detached itself from the horizon and was now coming up, slowly, into the blue sky.
'As a matter of fact, it isn't the real Earth,' he said. 'It's a mirror image of the real Earth.'
'Yes, it is.'
'Well, if it's a mirror image of the real Earth, then where is the real Earth of which it is a mirror image?'
'We are the real Earth,' he said.
'How do you know?'
'I just know. I feel it in my bones.'
'And I feel it in my bones that we are a mirror image.'
'So it's a dead end.'
'Not at all. I've got some arguments.'
'Oh, yes,' he smiled, wryly.
'You'll agree with me that on the real Earth there is the real logic, won't you?'
'I don't know whether logic can be real or not real. But, anyway, mirrors reverse the image, they don't reverse the logic.'
'The plain mirrors don't, yes,' she said. 'But we are not a plain mirror image of the real Earth. Our mirror is in a continual fever. It becomes convex in the very spot where a minute ago it was concave, or cylindrical, or bell-shaped. And the images of the real Earth dance in it, revert, deform, multiply...'
Though much of the book consists of different characters testing their ideas and philosophies on each other, what they all seem to struggle with is the relationship of their ideas - philosophical, religious, political, and so forth - to the messy, chaotic real world. Note, for instance, how the idea of a feverish mirror earth echoes the vibrating system quoted before. Again it's the Minister of Imponderabilia who voices this gap between theoretical ideas and everyday reality:
'We are all trapped between the beautiful blueprints of the most perfect systems and the World that contradicts itself...'
On a meta-level the book itself can also be seen as the distorted mirror image of a real story. Instead of the neat "beautiful blueprint" of a detective story, it represents the chaos of "the World that contradicts itself".
Beyond this, the unifying theme of - let alone the solution to - 'The Mystery of the Sardine' remains maddeningly elusive. But as other reviews of the book have noted, this in no way reduces the enjoyment of the ride.
For an in-depth profile of Themerson, see this Context article.