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Clemens J. Setz: Indigo (Indigo)

This book is about a syndrome called Indigo. It is carried by certain children, though why them it is not clear. Most of the children we deal with are male but it does seem to affect girls as well. What it does is that people who come into contact with the children become very ill – headaches, fainting, rashes, diarrhoea, vomiting and so on. There seems to be no known cure and no indication of what is the cause of the syndrome. The children themselves do not, on the whole, seem directly affected. There is some slight qualification to this but the effect on them may be the psychological effect of their isolation and knowledge that they cannot have a normal life. Moreover, on the whole, children who have the syndrome do not seem to be affected when they are in contact with other children who have it. Again, there is some slight qualification. There are degrees of Indigo syndrome. It is measured in how long before someone comes into contact with them becomes ill. Those with longer response times seem to be more likely to be affected by coming into contact with others, though, it seems, adults and medical personnel in contact with them do not seem fully aware of this. For most of them, the effect wears off as they reach adulthood but, again, this is not the case with all of them.

We mainly follow the story of two people and those they come into contact with. The first one we meet is wittily called Clemens J(ohann) Setz. It is not our author though his physical description seems to match, to a rough degree, the real Clemens J Setz. Our fictitious Setz studied maths and was, apparently, very good at it. He had to do an internship and his professor got him what may have been considered a prestigious posting at the Helianau Institute. This is an institute that is run by the somewhat Machiavellian Dr. Rudolph whose pupils are Indigo children. However, as the fees are high, they are the children of well-off middle class parents.

Things do not work out well for Setz at the Institute. In the end, he is sent away and warned by Dr. Rudolph never to set foot again on the premises. Part of the reason for this is the mysterious relocations of some of the pupils, which Setz queries. These involve seemingly random children being bundled into a car, in strange costumes (apparently it takes their mind off what is going on), and never being seen again.

Setz subsequently becomes a writer but, before that, he is charged with murdering a Romanian (specifically, partially flaying him) who had been ill-treating his dogs. Setz is acquitted but the stigma remains, particularly with his former pupils. We do know that Setz is revolted by cruelty to animals, particularly cruelty towards animals used in scientific experiments, and numerous examples are given of this throughout the book. Cruelty to humans is also highlighted but less than cruelty to animals. In both cases, it induces vomiting and/or fainting in him.

We first meet Setz as he is writing, not surprisingly, a book about the Indigo syndrome. He is going round interviewing key people – the person who first properly identified and studied the syndrome, parents of Indigo children and so on. Indeed, it is through these interviews that we get an idea of what the syndrome is.

When we meet Robert Tätzel, he is twenty-nine and burnt-out, which means he had the syndrome as a child but no longer does. He was once a pupil of Setz and becomes mildly obsessed with Setz’s prosecution and trial, not least because he thinks Setz could have done it. Though he is burnt out, he is still concerned that he may be still affected by it and it may affect Cordula, his girlfriend. He has had some success as a painter but still seems to have a certain amount of turmoil and anxiety in his life. In particular, he is convinced the Setz is guilty of murdering the Romanian.

We follow the stories of the two. The Batman-obsessed Robert seems somewhat disturbed and struggles to cope with life. . Eventually, he will track down Setz, partially to find out if he really killed the Romanian but also to learn more about the Indigo children as Setz’s writing indicates that he does know more.

Setz himself, though he has written an article in The National Geographic on the issue, is eager to know more, not least because he suspects, with some justification, that there are things going on that are being concealed, particularly as regards the relocation of the children. He is keen to meet the mysterious Ferenc who seems to be involved, though it is not clear how or why or who he is. Indeed, as with other aspects of the Indigo children, such as the effect of Indigo children on other Indigo children, Ferenc does not seem to means the same thing to the children as it does to the adults. Indeed, part of this novel shows that adults and children have a very different perception of the world.

We never do learn what Indigo is. Setz gives us several historical references (which may or may not be true) indicating that similar phenomena are to be found in the past. There is also, towards the end of the book, some indication that not all the cases are genuine, in that some parents are claiming that their child has the syndrome, as a form of child abuse or as a way to get rid of them or control them. What does seem relatively clear is that Setz is using it both as a way of showing how we isolate people because of their differences and that, as a species, we can very cruel. Despite or, perhaps, because of the fact that the nature of the syndrome remains mysterious and is not, for example AIDS or leprosy or other disease which we do know and have some sense of its cause and effect, the book is certainly a fascinating and original read.

Publishing history

First published in German 2012 by Suhrkamp
First English publication in 2014 by Serpent’s Tail