Something unusual has been happening in Germany. For more than a year one of the bestselling books has been a novel by a young Austrian writer named Daniel Kehlmann that is neither a thriller nor a racy love story. Even more surprising: It has nothing to do with Hitler. It is “simply” a well-written tale about two famous scientists of the nineteenth century, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, whose feats of intellectual prowess and all-too-human weakness are narrated with humor, lightness and (for novels in German) uncharacteristic dispatch. Published in 2005, the hardcover edition has sold almost a million copies and been translated into some twenty languages. In a felicitous English version by Carol Brown Janeway, Measuring the World has also received glowing reviews here, with Time magazine(not exactly a champion of foreign-language fiction) declaring it one of the “ten best” books of 2006. So what is going on?

First, to German readers Kehlmann is not completely unknown. The son of a prominent German-Jewish theater director, he had already published four novels and a collection of short stories (all still untranslated into English) by the time he was 30. His fourth novel, Kaminski and I, revealed a gift for satire and unusual characters–the narrator is an amusingly unself-conscious, overambitious art journalist–and was a genuine popular hit. Kehlmann has also distinguished himself as a remarkably discerning and independent critic, equally at home with contemporary American writers (Updike is a characteristically unfashionable favorite), Latin American magic realists (especially García Márquez and Vargas Llosa) and the European masters (Cervantes, Stendhal, Proust). Trained in philosophy at the University of Vienna, he has written on Voltaire and Isaiah Berlin. And as if this weren’t enough, he is a fan of popular culture, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to The Simpsons.

At 32, Kehlmann is something of a Wunderkind, and he may well feel a special bond with the two Enlightenment Wunderkinder in his latest novel. Alexander von Humboldt began publishing scientific articles while still a teenager, and in his late 20s he embarked on a five-year exploration of South America that made him world famous. At the end of that tour he spent two weeks with President Jefferson, returned to a hero’s reception in post-revolutionary Paris and spent the next five decades publishing book after book about the “great harmonies of Nature.” In a recent study of the “Humboldt current” in American intellectual life, Aaron Sachs praises him as the first ecologist, a proto-Transcendentalist who influenced Poe, Emerson, the Hudson River School painters and a host of scientists and explorers. For the centennial of his birth in 1869 the New York Times dedicated the entire front page to him with a single-word headline: “Humboldt.”

That fame has long since ebbed in America, but in Germany Humboldt is still celebrated as a genius embodying the scientific ideal of broad-minded inquiry. Along with his brother Wilhelm (a celebrated linguist who founded the first modern research university in Berlin), he belongs to die Klassik: the classically minded generation of writers and thinkers, including Goethe, Kant and Schiller, who set the terms of modern German culture.

Who would have thought such high-minded stuff could be a vehicle for comedy? But in Kehlmann’s playful hands, German classicism’s lack of humor becomes humorous. Unfailingly fleissig (hard-working) and proud, Humboldt tilts his way through the South American jungles, Quixote-like, in a vain search for the grand unity of the cosmos. In the meantime the bumps and scratches of mundane reality intercede: Brother Wilhelm tries to poison him as a child; flies and mosquitoes pester him in the Amazon; a prostitute horrifies him with an attempted seduction. Playing Sancho Panza to Humboldt’s Quixote, his French assistant Bonpland can only sigh and wonder: “Did one always have to be so German?”

If Humboldt represents a certain German intellectual type, at once unworldly and socially ambitious, Gauss is cast as his opposite: indifferent to fame or social advantage and totally absorbed by his mental universe. A Mozart of mathematics who stunned his teachers while still in elementary school, he published his magnum opus at the age of 24 and became one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. Here too Kehlmann displays his flair for narrative, turning potentially story-killing discussions of higher arithmetic into droll biographical episodes. To explain Gauss’s discovery of a non-Euclidean geometry where parallel lines meet, for instance, Kehlmann has him secure a ride in a hot-air balloon, where, high above Hanover, the 12-year-old sees the curve of the earth and recognizes that space is bent. “This is how God sees the world,” the balloonist tells the boy.

Much to the consternation of the mere mortals around him, Gauss is so smart he can do Harry Potter-like feats of magic. “This was the hardest mathematical textbook in German,” his pedantic and rather sadistic elementary school teacher objects. “Nobody could study it in a day, and most particularly not an eight-year-old with a running nose.” But after half an hour of questioning, the teacher turns pale in recognition of the boy’s genius and, “presumably to control his emotions, grabbed the stick and Gauss received the last beating of his life.” On his wedding night, at a particularly delicate moment, he suddenly realizes how to calculate the trajectories of planets. “It was too important, he couldn’t forget it,” and to his bride’s disbelief he jumps out of bed to jot down the formula.

This is all great fun, of course, and one can easily enjoy the story without asking oneself what kind of “historical novel” Kehlmann has written. But what relation do these fictional characters bear to the actual individuals? For Kehlmann hasn’t just added imaginary private moments to the historical record; he has also taken liberties with history itself, sacrificing “factual correctness” for the truth of his story. Humboldt’s South American guide and constant companion for years, Carlos Montúfar, is nowhere mentioned. “As I began to write my novel,” Kehlmann explains in a recent essay, “it quickly became clear to me that I needed to invent. Storytelling requires creating an arc of tension that doesn’t exist in reality, one that gives structure and causality to events…. Precisely when one wishes to write about the chaotic nature of reality, which resists measurement, one has to take form seriously.”

Underneath the lighthearted sendup of what he has called the “grandeur and comedy of German culture,” Kehlmann is really taking issue with Humboldt’s belief in an ordered universe that can be precisely mapped if only one labors long and hard enough. Though Gauss neglects his wife and demeans his son, he emerges as the novel’s real intellectual hero because he recognizes the fundamental indeterminacy or unknowability of reality. Significantly, Kehlmann has Gauss travel to Königsberg to tell Kant that, notwithstanding the philosopher’s claim in The Critique of Pure Reason, Euclidean space does not “dictate the form of our perceptions…but was, rather, a fiction, a beautiful dream…space was folded, bent, and extremely strange.” So old that he’s lost his wits, Kant can only babble: “Buy sausage…. And stars. Buy stars too.”

By creatively bending history, Kehlmann seems to be trying to approach this modern, Gaussian perspective within the space of his novel, whose true subject is the failure of Enlightenment attempts to “measure the world.” In a central chapter, “The River,” he recounts a meeting between Humboldt and the director of a Jesuit mission, who tells him about the three scientists sent by the French Academy to measure the Equator. Their journey dissolves into madness and chaos, and the one survivor refuses to recount his experience of the jungle’s fundamental otherness: “the throaty sounds and perfectly aimed poisoned arrows that came flying out of the undergrowth, the nocturnal glows, but above all the minuscule displacements of reality, when the world crossed over into otherworldliness for a few moments.” Kehlmann’s depiction of the South American jungle as a place of “magical realism,” where winged dogs and flying saucers and storytelling natives are “natural” facts of life, ultimately makes this epistemological claim against the harmonious, ordered nature of reality and the power of human reason to know it. “Space was universal!” declares Humboldt. “Being universal was an invention,” replies the wiser Jesuit, who has lived for years in the Amazon. “And space as such happened where surveyors put it.”

If Kehlmann weren’t so smart, he might make the mistake of taking himself too seriously. An astute reader of Kafka, he knows, for instance, that the word for “measuring” in his title (Vermessung) is the same one that Kafka used to depict K’s impossible quest as a land surveyor in The Castle; the peculiar structure of time and space in Kafka’s novel parallels that of Kehlmann’s otherworldly jungle. But instead of pontificating, Kehlmann turns the Modernist allegory into a little joke, showing Gauss as a land surveyor who gets into the castle and meets its owner, a “Count” who seems to know more about physical reality than Gauss and who may be God himself. Kehlmann even pokes fun at himself when he depicts the unliterary Gauss and Humboldt complaining about overly inventive artists who neglect their mimetic task. “Artists held deviation to be a strength, but invention confused people, stylization falsified the world,” Humboldt objects. “Disgusting,” Gauss agrees.

Reviewers in Germany and in the United States have welcomed Kehlmann’s comic novel as a departure from the lugubrious German bestsellers of the recent past–books like Jörg Friedrich’s description of the horrific destruction of German cities during the air war (recently published by Columbia University Press under the title The Fire) or Günter Grass’s novel Crabwalk, about German civilians killed by a Russian torpedo. It is true that Kehlmann belongs to a different generation and is not bound by the same sense of taboo and guilt that has haunted Germans born near the end of World War II. Moreover, his partial Jewish heritage–his father was imprisoned in a work camp, and numerous relatives were deported and killed–further complicates the matter of his “Germanness” without providing an alternative identity.

In any case, Kehlmann’s Measuring the World is no less concerned with “the German question”; it simply provides a different means of exorcising the ghosts in the national closet. One might compare its satire of die Klassik to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapping of the Reichstag in 1995, when this most somber historical site suddenly became something playful and light–for a moment. For that giant birthday gift to the nation was only a brief interlude in the ongoing debate about the legacy of National Socialism, to which Germans inevitably returned, mesmerized by the translation of Daniel Goldhagen’s anti-German diatribe Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Kehlmann’s sendup of the overly serious German academic with his craven attitude toward political power provides an insouciant variation on the typically tormented appraisals of the national psyche.

Measuring the World is not quite a masterpiece: Though amusing, its characters are not fully developed beyond the needs of satire to become affecting. And American readers may not get all the German in-jokes that fuel the humor in the original; the English translation is often too elegant and misses the amusingly stilted quality of Humboldt’s “classical” German. But Kehlmann has the storyteller’s gift of lightness that is rare in any country, not just Germany. He is sure to write other novels and, with losses on both sides of his family during the war (his non-Jewish mother lost her father), he may turn to a more recent chapter of German history in a future book. But for now we might well follow the German readers who have put aside their usual reading matter for this very unusual novel, a true adventure story of the mind.