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AADISHT KHANNA
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

Temple treasures may be unearthed, but does gold bring pleasure or pain?

t's only been a month since I wrote about Anathem, and I hadn't meant to revisit an author quite so soon, but Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon has suddenly become topical, thanks to the rediscovered treasure horde in Sreepadmanabhaswamy Temple.

Cryptonomicon takes place on two timelines: World War II, and the beginning of the dotcom era. The protagonists in the 1990s timeline learn about a cache of Nazi and Imperial Japanese war gold that the protagonists of the 1940s timeline had buried in the middle of the Philippines rainforest, making this a treasure hunt adventure.

What differentiates it from Treasure Island or King Solomon's Mines is how long the treasure hunt takes to get started – the treasure map is not revealed until Chapter 56. This isn't because the book is slow or boring – Stephenson just finds many things terribly interesting and worth writing about. The fifty five preceding chapters cover transoceanic fibre optic cables, the machines that would inspire digital computers, and cryptography and Internet privacy. The correct way of eating breakfast cereal and spoof erotica about an antique furniture fetish also get about half a chapter each.

And once the treasure hunt starts, only about two chapters towards the end are devoted to physically moving through jungles to get to it. Instead, the rest of the plotline is preoccupied with more subtle problems: the corporate battles to control the gold, the business plan of what to do with it, the mathematics of decrypting the treasure map, and the paranoid steps taken to protect the decrypted knowledge from spies – which, too, is topical, given the Home Ministry's recent determination to spy on Blackberry email and instant messages.

ut Stephenson saves his most impactful writing for the ethics of what to do with the cache of gold, a question that is preoccupying real life India today. His most sympathetic character, Goto Dengo, a Japanese miner and engineer who buried the gold and is then asked to dig it up again, is bitterly opposed to disinterring it when the war ends:

"Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By school children doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings."

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But Stephenson saves his most impactful writing for the ethics of what to do with the cache of gold, a question that is preoccupying real life India today.

And in the 1990s: "The leaders of Nippon were stupid. They took all of the gold out of Tokyo and buried it in holes in the ground in the Philippines! Because they thought that The General would march into Tokyo and steal it. But The General didn't care about the gold. He understood that the real gold is here--" he points to his head "--in the intelligence of the people, and here--" he holds out his hands "--in the work that they do. Getting rid of our gold was the best thing that ever happened to Nippon. It made us rich. Receiving that gold was the worst thing that happened to the Philippines. It made them poor."

In the end, Goto-sama is persuaded to help remove the gold, when he learns what the protagonists plan to do with it: use it to back a private, anonymous digital currency that can serve as an alternative to the crisis-ravaged East Asian national currencies; and to create resources to prevent genocides.

Stephenson's fictional gold-backed digital currency was based on a real one: e-gold.com, which has been facing trouble because of suspicions that it was enabling money laundering. Perhaps the trustees of the Padmanabhaswamy temple could learn from e-gold.com's real-life mistakes and successes, and Stephenson's fictional business plan, and use their vaults as a reserve to back a new, well-managed currency. In these days of high inflation and a devaluing rupee, people would welcome the alternative.

Cryptonomicon is published by Random House.

 
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