Einstein in Africa


Norman Lock


            He wanted to teach arithmetic, he said.  1 + 1 = 2.  Nothing more complicated.  Certainly not the calculus, or elementary functions.  Not even trigonometry.  Arithmetic: 1 + 1 = 2.  He would teach geometry, if we insisted; but only the two-dimensional sort.  He could no longer cope with the third dimension, never mind the fourth.  The thought that there might be a fifth made him want to lie down.  He could also instruct us in the Cartesian equation, if we wished.  He had graph paper.  He had brought it from Zürich.  Plotting coordinates he found restful.  That is what he sought in Africa: restfulness.  All this talk about uncertainty was destroying his nerves.  God does not play dice, he said more than once.  His marriage wasn’t working either -- he could see that.  Mileva had her own ideas about the universe.  She was becoming uncooperative.  The scientific community was becoming uncooperative -- even his hair wouldn’t cooperate!  To hell with it! he said, throwing away his comb.  I’ll use my fingers!  Fingers are simpler.  He had always loved simplicity, he said.  What could be simpler than arithmetic?

            “We’re not interested,” said Oates, who was drinking.

            I looked sharply at him to remind him of what is due a guest.

            “We’re here to shoot elephants,” he said brusquely.  “And rhinoceros.  And” -- fixing me with a counter-look -- “ignoramuses.  We want tusks, you understand ... ivory!  We didn’t come to Africa to do sums.”

            “You’re drunk!” I said in a scalding tone.

            “I’m a scientist,” he smirked as he picked up his bottle and started for his tent.  “And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to study the effects of Bombay Gin on a 200-pound man.”

            His tent swallowed him up.

            “I’m sorry, Albert.”

            “What about you?” he asked, offering me a rust-colored copybook.

            “I’m interested in Zero,” I told him.  “In nothing.”

            “Never mind,” he said, patting the back of my hand in the friendliest of ways.  “I’ll go into the wilderness and measure things.  I have my ruler.”  He showed me it.  “Measuring things is also restful, so long as they don’t squirm and the ruler doesn’t shrink or stretch.  Can you guide me?”


            I gave him a pith helmet and a porter.  To carry his copybooks and his graph paper.  His change of socks and violin.

            “Is it far?” he asked.


            “Good.  I’m in the mood for a long walk.”

            I bent down and tied his shoelaces.

            “Can we travel in a straight line?” he asked, and in his voice I detected a faint querulousness.

            “If you like.”

            He liked.  He was done with lines that bent -- “the great curves of space.”  (He traced an elegant contour that reminded me of Anna.)  All done.  Straight lines were simpler, more restful.

            “1 + 1 = 2,” he said.

            I wanted to tell him then and there that Africa was not the place for restfulness.  I wanted to tell him how Africa made us all nervous, but I said nothing.  He would find out for himself soon enough that Africa was neither restful nor simple.

            Here, I thought, 1 + 1 does not always equal 2.

            Here was not the place to recover from a nervous breakdown.


            “Do you incline towards the Mechanical World View or the Electromagnetic?” Albert asked.

            “I have no opinion,” I answered.

            “Very wise,” he said.


            We stopped for the night in a Nyika village.  Albert asked the villagers if they would like arithmetic lessons.  He would be happy, he said, to give them free of charge to any and all comers.  The villagers said they were not interested in arithmetic.  Their interest lay rather in the fields of sweet potatoes and peas.

            Albert picked up his violin and began to play a folk melody he had learned in Milan.

            (I thought of Arthur Conan Doyle playing in his tent by the river Potha while he dreamt of Moriarty.)

            The villagers sat in a ring and wept at the sadness of the music.  They called it “sorrowing.” 

            Albert lifted his bow from the strings and entreated them:  “Will you let me teach you arithmetic?”

            “No,” they said, “teach us to play the sorrowing.”


            Albert threw a leaf into the Tana.  There were ants on the leaf.  It drifted into the current, then sped downstream.

            “Do you think those ants know they are moving?” he asked.

            “Decidedly,” I said.

            “Why not us?  Why not the human ants on the enormous leaf that is forever sailing through space?”

            I gave him my most indifferent shrug to let him know that I did not care for this.  It was, however, lost on him.

            “Could it be our frame of reference travels with us as it does not in the case of those ants?”

            He was making me tired -- tired and irritable.

            “I thought you wanted to rest!” I snapped.

            He hung his head sheepishly and mumbled through his mustache about old habits.


            Albert crawled about the wilderness, measuring things.  He kept a careful record of his measurement.  He would slap the ruler down along the edge of the thing he wanted to measure, squint at it, lick the end of his pencil, then write a figure in his notebook.  Its pages were black with his pencilings.

            “How’s it coming, Albert?”

            He frowned. 

            “Ask me tomorrow after I have re-measured what I measure today.  If nothing has changed, I will be upheld.”

            “You must wear your topi, Albert.  The sun will addle your brains.”

            “That would be good,” he said, and laughed.


            One night he played the violin so sweetly the world held its breath.

            At least that is how it seemed to me.

            “It is nice to sit still,” he said.

            “Why do you think so much, Albert?”



            He slept for three days and nights, but woke refreshed.

            “Thinking has become a curse for me,” he said.  “I think even when asleep.”

            Like Edison, I thought, who had also visited me in Africa.


            I took Albert to meet the wild forest people.  Pennington, whom they idolized, hung from a pole in a clearing.  

            “These are the wild forest people,” I told Albert.  “And this is my friend Pennington, who had his throat cut by a porter.  They have made a fetish of him -- he brings them luck.”

            “I envy him his rest,” Albert said sadly.

            “They would do as much for you,” I remarked.

            “Modesty prevents me from accepting.”


            “Are you happy, Albert?”

            “Happy is a relative term,” he said.


            Africa is constantly unraveling.  Like one of Albert’s woolen sweaters, it is forever coming apart.  Whether from insects or rot or humidity or one of the little-understood mechanical processes of deterioration -- Africa collapses, molders, falls to pieces only to be replaced by a new Africa indistinguishable from the old which, in its turn, collapses, molders, falls to pieces.

            Ad infinitum.

            It is this that made me nervous.  The terrifying energy!  Matter ceaselessly transforming itself.  A world that does not rest, that denies the very possibility of rest.  At times I almost longed for the sleeping sickness.

            “Why don’t you leave?” Albert asked.

            “Africa has rooted in me -- it has grown right through me.  You would have to tear it out of my heart.”

            He nodded.  He was a scientist, but he understood the power of metaphor.

            “This morning when I took my measurements I noticed that things had changed during the night.”

            Now it was my turn to nod for I understood that, overnight, things squirm, the meterstick molts.

            “Africa,” I said simply, to a man who valued simplicity above all.

            “Africa is making me nervous,” he admitted; and as if to confirm his self-appraisal, one of his eyelids twitched.

            Then, as if in spiteful mimicry, Africa twitched: the sharp grass pierced the veldt, the Tana jumped its banks, elephants trampled the villages and shambas of sweet potatoes and peas, it snowed on Mt. Kenya while everywhere the darkness deepened and the wind sorrowed.

            “Light a fire!” cried Albert, pulling on a second sweater to stop his teeth from chattering.

            Attracted by the fire, an immeasurable column of safari ants plundered our encampment, carrying off Albert’s notebook, his pencil, and ruler.  They would have made off with his violin if I had not snatched it from their path.

            “Arithmetic is of no use here,” Albert lamented.

            “It’s a dicey business,” I agreed.


            “Does the energy of a man persist after death in a form that can be said to be uniquely his?” Albert asked earnestly.

            We were burying Oates, who had been devoured by the marauding ants.

            “If you mean: does Oates still exist elsewhere? ... I don’t know.”

            “Neither do I,” said Albert, whose once firm belief in science’s ability to discover the mysterious workings of the universe had by now all but extinguished.

            “Dig!” I urged him.  I was keen to get Oates underground, because of the heat.

            “I like the word elsewhere,” said Albert with surprising sentimentality.

            The scrape of our shovels against the flinty soil refuted for me the idea of “elsewhere.”

            “Do you think the ants were avenging their comrades drowned in the Tana?” he asked after a silence.

            “Will you never stop asking questions?” I shouted.

            “I have no answers anymore,” he said as he took up his violin and played.

            “Neither does Oates,” I remarked dryly.


            “I am thinking of Ulm,” said Albert.  “I was a child in Ulm.”

            I was in no mood for childhood reminiscence.

            “The light in which I played as a child in Ulm is traveling toward the edge of the universe where it will curve and one day return, carrying the image of myself as a child that was constituted by that light.  So that one day I will again be a child playing in Ulm.”

            I turned away, believing him mad.

            “What do you think: could the light be ‘elsewhere’?  Could light be our afterlife?”

            “You’re insane!” I shouted and regretted it immediately, seeing his wounded look.

            “Isaac Newton was insane for a while.  Why not me?”


            “Remember the leaf I threw in the Tana?” Albert asked.  “What made it fall?”

            “Gravity,” I said.

            “What caused it to fall?”

            “Death,” I said.

            “Did it expend its energy in falling, or was it drained of it before it fell?  Is that what caused it to fall?  It simply let go, no longer having the strength to cling to the tree.  Where did its energy go?  Into the tree?  The air?  Into the ground?  Is that what gravity is -- the accumulated lost energies of the dead things of this world?”

            “You should go home,” I muttered.

            “I came here to rest from civilization and its complicated social interactions.”

            “Africa is no place to rest,” I said wearily.

            “Objects at rest tend to remain at rest until acted upon by some external force -- Newton’s First Law.”

            “Africa is a force ...” I said with an intimation of menace.

            “You should have let me teach you arithmetic!” he shouted.

            “And here is a force to send you home!”

            I knocked him rudely down.

            He rose to his feet and clapped the dust from his hands.

            “Africa does not exist,” he declared.  “If it did, it would affirm universal constants.  No such affirmation is evident.  I propose to search for the unifying principle in all things and leave Africa to Heisenberg and the disciples of Uncertainty.”  He felt his shoulder gingerly.  “You ought not to have knocked me down.”

            “Edison failed here, too,” I said, wanting suddenly to comfort him.

            “Light bulbs and phonographs!  Tickertape machines and moving picture shows!” sneered Albert.  “What are they next to that!”  He gestured broadly with his hand, taking in the universe (all but Africa, which -- it was understood -- is an illusion).  “Toys!”


            Albert went.  He stepped into one of Africa’s many black holes and was gone.  (While they have not yet been discovered, they exist all the same.)  He came out the other side, as he ought, in light.  Darkness is foreign to him; he did not belong here.  Perhaps now he was in Ulm, hunting frogs along the banks of the Danube.  Or a baby at his mother’s breast.  Or perhaps he was an old man getting ready to climb into his death bed.

            I did not know, nor did I wish to.

            I wasn’t sorry to see Albert go.  His helpless questioning increased my nervousness.  Years before, I had resolved to ask no more, knowing full well it is senseless to question Africa.  In the presence of so much that cannot be explained, one is relieved of the necessity (misery) of inquiry.

            One rests or is nudged from rest.

            One sleeps or goes on safari.

            One acts or is acted upon, as the case may be.

            In accordance with the divine law of indifference.


©2001 Norman Lock


Norman Lock's fiction appears in respected journals throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe, Australia, and Canada (never forgetting that fine Argentine site -- Southern Cross Review). The work here is from A History of the Imagination, published in Europe as an e-book. Two extended prose sequences -- Emigres and Joseph Cornell's Operas -- are available in one book from elimae. Lock's dramatic works have been seen on stages throughout America and Germany. The House of Correction, published in the U.S. by Broadway Play Publishing, was one of the 10 best plays of 1988 and (for its revival) 1994, according to the LA Times. It was also "best new play" of the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. Lock is also the author of a film produced by the American Film Institute and shown at international film festivals. He was awarded the Aga Kahn Prize in 1979, given by The Paris Review. Other online work of his may be found at linnean street,
Unlikely Stories
, and Tatlin's Tower. He may be reached via e-mail at
[email protected]

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