J.A. – Barcelona Review
Greek author Doxiadis wrote this novel in 1992 and updated it slightly for the 2000 publication in English. It’s a delight to have it in translation at last because this is a riveting good story about pride, obsession and – gulp – mathematics. Have no fear if you’re somewhat left-brain deficient in the math department like me; Doxiadis’s narrative is easy to follow and will have you chatting away about Goldbach’s Conjecture, Fermat’s Last Theorem, Kurt Gödel’s Theorem, etc. as though you knew what you were talking about (well, kind of). I did learn this: Fermat’s Last Theorem is no longer theory as it was proven in the mid-90s, ditto for Kurt Gödel’s Theorem back in 1931. It’s been surprising and somewhat disheartening for me to learn that several of my friends already knew this, from reading the Sunday papers, they say, but if I can’t blow off about my new-found knowledge at least I’m no longer so ignorant. What has not yet been proven (and therefore not yet a subject for the Sunday papers) is Goldbach’s Conjecture, which remains one of the toughest mathematical problems to date. He who can prove Goldbach’s theory will surely win the Nobel. I think you could win the Nobel if you disproved the theory as well, but I don’t want to get in over my head.
The novel begins: “Every family has its black sheep – in ours it was Uncle Petros.” The narrator is Uncle Petros’s most favored nephew. He tells of how his family has always considered Petros to be one of life’s failures. The nephew, who begins his story looking back to his high school years in Athens, is naturally curious about the eccentric uncle who lives on the outskirts of the city and is more or less a recluse interested only in chess and gardening. As the nephew learns, Uncle Petros was once a maths prodigy, who studied and taught for many years at a German university and spent time at Cambridge as well. One day he visits his uncle and announces that he would like to make a career of mathematics himself. Uncle Petros proposes to set his nephew a mathematical problem to solve. If he can solve it, he says, then mathematics is indeed his chosen field, but if he cannot solve it, then the nephew must make a binding promise to drop mathematics as a career pursuit. He accepts the terms, fails to find a solution and heads off to university in the US undecided about his major now that it won’t be math. His roommate by chance is a math major and through him he learns that the problem his uncle had set him was no other that Goldbach’s Conjecture. This conjecture is what his uncle had spent his life trying to prove and could not. Part Two of the novel sees the narrator on a return trip to Greece confronting his uncle and demanding to know why he had set him such an impossible task. We then get “The Story of Uncle Petros Papachristos,” which the narrator tells us in the third person. It is a fascinating story of math and genius and here we get the pride and obsession that characterizes the life of Uncle Petros. Part Three brings us to the present day. Petros is now an old man, nearly 80, and slightly unhinged. The nephew, who began his life in mathematics but later gave it up, confronts his uncle again, wishing him to own up honestly to his past failure. What follows is a fascinating end to the tale with a dazzling climax. First and foremost Doxiadis is a storyteller extraordinaire. He’ll keep you turning the pages to get at the uncle’s story and in that story unfolds the life and world of a mathematical scholar who single-mindedly pursued one goal: the proving of Goldbach’s Conjecture. That most difficult of conjectures, by the way, is this: Every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. Sounds elementary, but that shows what I know.
J.A. – Barcelona Review