The publication (or to be more accurate, re-publication) in English of Sten Nadolny's The Discovery of Slowness is a major literary event, not only for connoisseurs of fine historical fiction, but also for those of us who concern themselves with leadership, communication and systems-thinking issues.
First published in Germany in 1983, this powerful novel of the life of explorer John Franklin has never been out-of-print in that country since. This is certainly due in part to its stature as a cleanly-written, keenly-observed literary impression of a chaotic age not dissimilar to our own, and of a man whose slower rhythm seems out of joint with that age. What has contributed to the book's longevity in the meantime, however, is the cult-status it enjoys among managers and leaders as a portrayal of a type of leadership that all eras cry out for: the ability to perceive the world not merely at the level of isolated events, but at a level of deep structure where the dynamics of the whole system are revealed, and plans can be made based on better data and profounder understanding.
John Franklin is uniquely suited to play this role: "slow" from birth, he experiences the world as an endless cycle of data-gathering, reflection, and action based on the systemic patterns that reveal themselves to his silent contemplation. The fact that that action can not only be more appropriate than what other, "faster" contemporaries would have initiated, but also swifter in execution and more permanent in its effect, only insinuates itself slowly on a society caught up in the frenetic pace of the early 1800's. One simply does not have the time; doing takes precedence over reflection and doing.
It is, however, through his in-born inability to act in any other manner that John Franklin's career is made, first as a seaman, then as a hero at Trafalgar, as the captain of 3 expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage that instinct tells him must exist, and as the Governor of Tasmania. Author Nadolny is, one suspects, as much concerned with his protagonist's inner journey of adaptation to the world (and the world's to him) as with the external details that lead up to the final, fateful voyage to the Arctic regions and the disappearance of the Franklin expedition in 1845. The measure of Nadolny's artistic success is that he achieves our undivided attention and caring at both levels with his breathtakingly simple prose.
Penguin books has done us a great service by re-releasing the elegant Ralph Freedman translation, once fleetingly available from Viking. For people in search of an elegant humanitarian classic, or a portrayal of the much-touted "servant leadership" in action, The Discovery of Slowness may well be the discovery of the summer. And those who agree about its status as a contemporary classic will want to investigate the same author's delicious Hermes-novel, The God of Impertinence, also newly published by Viking