Giordano and Ogawa: the twin primes of fiction

An Italian and a Japanese debut author of ‘mathematical fiction’ form a perfect symmetry, locating in numbers and equations the essence of what it is to be human.

James Clasper

Topics Books

Mathematicians, says the scientist Freeman Dyson, are either birds or frogs. ‘Birds fly high in the sky and survey broad vistas of mathematics. They delight in unifying concepts that bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects and solve problems one at a time.’

This quirky distinction – with its echoes of Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated essay on Tolstoy, The Fox and the Hedgehog – is neatly demonstrated by two new novels: The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano, and The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa.

With apposite symmetry, both novels are about mathematicians and the way they perceive the world, and both have enjoyed huge success. As it happens, neither novel is especially mathematical, at least not compared with other ‘mathematical fiction’. Take BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, whose chapters are a series of pamphlets intended to be read in any order; or Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, whose 99 chapters represent rooms in a Parisian apartment block, mapped out on a 10×10 grid that Perec criss-crosses like a knight in chess, moving through each room only once.

Perec’s novel was the crowning achievement of the Oulipo, a collective of writers and mathematicians founded in Paris in 1960 to examine what mathematics could do for fiction. For the Oulipo, mathematics is no less than the ground on which literature stands.

Neither Giordano nor Ogawa attempts anything as bold. But they hardly lack ambition. Writing about mathematics – or, rather, writing about it so that it is a pleasure to read – is devilishly difficult. They pull it off, largely because they locate in the lofty abstraction of mathematics the essence of what it is to be human.

Giordano is a particle physicist – but don’t let that put you off. He belongs to a tradition of mathematicians who discovered their true metier in fiction – one that goes back to Lewis Carroll and includes Alexander Soltzenhitsyn, JM Coetzee, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. This comparison might over flatter The Solitude of Prime Numbers, but it’s still an impressive debut. Giordano’s writing is trim and supple, and he weaves the story of two childhood friends as tightly as a double helix.

The novel begins with a pair of tragedies. A skiing accident leaves Alice with a permanent limp, which later triggers anorexia. Mattia abandons his twin sister on the way to a party. When he returns, she has ‘disappeared into the void’. Mattia is soon drawn to Alice, a ‘pencil-thin’ girl with lips ‘so pale and thin that her mouth seemed to have been traced by a keen-bladed scalpel’. It’s an apt observation; Mattia assuages his guilt by inflicting savage wounds on his hands.

Mattia’s and Alice’s friendship is forged by the recognition of each other’s scars, and it endures as they drift into early adulthood. Giordano likens their connection to a cable running through their hands which sparks when they separate. Yet neither says what needs to be said; romance eludes them.

Mathematics is the only language that Mattia understands. For him, it is a way of putting ‘a small piece of the world in order’. Everyday details delight him: the ‘crooked’ rain falling on a moving car, the trapezium-shaped shadows cast against a wall. His idea of fun is filling a plastic cup with Coca Cola to the point at which surface tension prevents the liquid from spilling over. Mattia isn’t just a frog – he’s the frog prince.

Mathematics is Mattia’s emotional Rosetta Stone, too. It enables him to decipher the complexities of the human heart, yet it snuffs out his passion like a candle. A kiss is simply ‘a banal sequence of vectors’ to bring his mouth to a girl’s. And then, in an elegant passage midway through the novel that explains its title, Giordano foreshadows the conclusion.

‘Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and themselves. They are suspicious and solitary, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful.’ By now, Mattia is studying what mathematicians call twin primes – ‘pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbours, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching … If you have the patience to go on counting … you encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of numbers, and you become aware of the distressing sense that the pairs encountered up until that point were an accidental fact, that their true fate is to remain alone. Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.’

It’s a bewitching metaphor, typical of the novel’s themes of loneliness and longing. A lesser writer might have flogged it to death. In the end, though, it’s too obvious. After all, you don’t need to be a Fields medal-winner to know that two wrongs never make a right.

‘Just as the thought of a caramel can cause your mouth to water, the mere mention of prime numbers made us anxious to know more about their secrets’, says the narrator of Yoko Ogawa’s novel, a housekeeper sent to work for a former mathematics professor. Here, mathematics is as mysterious as the forces that bring individuals together.

The professor is said to be difficult. A car accident left him with only 80 minutes of short-term memory. But he befriends the housekeeper’s son – he names him Root, because ‘the flat top of his head reminded him of the square-root sign’ – and it is his affection for the boy, along with the housekeeper’s nascent love of numbers, that propels the slender plot.

Ogawa handles the professor’s affliction with care, eschewing the moth-eaten clichés of the tortured genius for something more restrained. Indeed, this is a work of intelligence and understanding, a half-whispered meditation on communication, memory and friendship.

Like Mattia, the professor finds safety in numbers. They are, the housekeeper says, ‘his way of reaching out to the world’. When she reports for work, he demands to know her shoe size. ‘There’s a sturdy number’, he says. ‘It’s a factorial of four.’

Unlike Mattia, the professor is a bird, soaring high above the mathematical plains, swooping down on numbers ‘like a kingfisher catching a glint of sunlight on the fish’s fin’. One problem is never enough. Even wild, desperate guesses are preferable to silence, the housekeeper says, especially ‘when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one’.

Ogawa isn’t a mathematician, though her novel often reads like a rough guide to number theory. But The Housekeeper and the Professor is never dull. Ogawa’s writing is crystalline – reading it is like staring into a deep, silver lake. Never has a writer made numbers seem so poetic. Which is her point. When the housekeeper discovers Euler’s formula, it shines ‘like a line of poetry carved on the wall of a dark cave’. Similarly, ‘amicable numbers or prime numbers had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem’.

Ogawa’s insights are ageless, too. Giordano equates the solitude of prime numbers with the failure to connect; Ogawa sees mathematics as a metaphor for the very opposite. The professor explains that 220 (the housekeeper’s birthday, 20 February) and 284 (the number inscribed on his watch) are amicable numbers (where the factors of 220 add up to 284, and vice versa). The housekeeper is delighted: ‘My birthday and his watch had overcome great trials and tribulations to meet each other in the vast sea of numbers.’ It’s a subtle and intimate conclusion, and as hopeful as Mattia’s is desperate.

Mathematics is rich and beautiful because birds give it broad vision and frogs give it intricate details, Dyson writes. Giordano and Ogawa give life to that sentiment, not by playing clever games, but by making the quandaries of the human heart their true concern. These are debut novels to savour. Like twin primes, it may be a while before another pair comes our way again.

James Clasper is a freelance writer and editor based in London.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paulo Giordano, is published by Doubleday. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, is published by Harvill Secker. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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