For both Ulrich and his father to have suppressed their musical passion for scientific and technological endeavour is not surprising in a century that valued utility and purpose over artistic and individual expression. What is equally unsurprising is their naïve optimism about their work (which is a feature of all ideological idols).
"For Ulrich’s father, there was no calling more noble, more philosophical, than the railways. As he dreamed, his moustache trembled with the snaking of glinting rails across continents. Next to the churches, synagogues and mosques he saw new edifices hatching roofs of steel and glass, and departure boards unfolding within, full of the promise of discovery. In the ecstasy of his reverie, he hovered above the cartoon face of the planet, now wrapped in twin lines of steel and given over, finally, to science and understanding." (p10)
This is echoed by Ulrich's early passion for chemistry — but experience tempers his idealism. For it was at a railway station that he said goodbye for the last time to his ex-wife and young son. Chemistry would have the same double-edge:
"A long time ago, Boris and I had a debate about chemistry. I said it was the science of life and he said it brought only death. Now I see that our views were simply two halves of the same thing." (p111)
The communist authorities in Bulgaria decreed that the country would become a global hub for the chemical industry — the reason Ulrich ends up in a leadership position in a factory (despite never finishing his Berlin degree). But his eyes are at last opened on retirement. The environmental legacy was (and still is) catastrophic. And it is a bitter irony, that in time, his own blindness would be caused by chemicals.
"Released from his own chemistry, Ulrich realised that Bulgaria had become a chemical disaster. The rivers ran with mercury and lead, and hummed with radioactivity. Fishing had dried up on the Black Sea coast, and every year more fields and forests were lost." (p159)
The ecological disaster seems a metaphor for the centuries ideological disasters as well. Individuals no longer count or belong, as forces far greater even than nation states buffet them relentlessly. As Boris powerfully argues with the apolitical Ulrich:
"The truth is there in your own household and you cannot see it: nations are steel boilers pitching madly with our soft flesh inside. I cannot think of anything that was not much better when we were just a territory in the empire, scratching our backsides for entertainment. And it will not be better again until we have abolished this Bulgaria and all the other killing machines." (p34)
What Boris didn't live to see, however, was the way that fascist, communist and capitalist all squeezed the life out of individuals. Ulrich has come to see that clearly, as he expresses it both in his memoir and daydreams. To that extent his is a truly post-modern voice, rejecting the certainties and one-size-fits-all mentality of a dying era. He is one of the century's survivor. But is this because he has travelled solo (sometimes because of his introverted temperament, sometimes because of being abandoned by those closest to him)? None of his human attachments lasted... except in his daydreams. But what is a person? Are not the dreams and ambitions of the heart every bit as much a part of a life as real-world achievements and activity? That seems to be a key question that this book is posing.