translated by Frank Wynne
This book is French. Of course it is. Where else would a novel quite overtly written as a vehicle for telling the history of mathematics become an immediate bestseller? Where else except in a country where dinner fills the evening and conversation fills dinner-time. Conversation that turns into excitement over the story of maths.
Guedj wraps his lessons in a mystery. What happened to the old mathematician who lived in a Brazilian forest and suddenly sent his entire library to a friend he had not seen in half a century? Guedj people’s his audience with quirky, if not deeply realized, characters. It’s not you and me attending lectures on squaring the circle. It’s deaf eleven-year-old, Max, who has come home from the flea market with a parrot he’s rescued from smugglers. It’s argumentative twin seventeen-year-olds and their hard-working mother. It’s a taxi-driver who only takes people from the airport if they’ve arrived from a city he wants to hear about: “Cities, mind you, not countries. Countries only exist on maps, but cities…cities are real places.”
And these people live in Paris. What’s not to like about a novel set in Paris? I would read it just for the street names: ‘The rue Ravignan is short and steep, running from the fountain at the Place Èmile-Goudeau , where the Bateau-Lavoir – Montmartre’s famous studio of painters – still stands, to the junction of the rue des Abbesses and the rue d’Orchampt.’
Mr. Ruche owns a bookshop on the rue d’Orchampt, called A Thousand and One Pages. He’s a philosopher by education. Talking about the library of Alexandria he says,
“The first manuscripts were kept in rolls – in Latin, volumen, hence the word volume.”
“Where would you be without etymology?” (says one of those highly articulate twins.)
“I think I might find words a little less interesting.”
It’s Mr. Ruche who takes delivery of a lorry-load of crates filled with books on mathematics.
Mr. Ruche sleeps in a converted garage in the courtyard of his house, because he has turned over the living area above his shop to his assistant, Perrette, her twins, Jonathan and Lea and her son Max. They live together as one unusual, but very French, family. Mr. Ruche is making osso bucco for dinner and talking to Lea:
‘Mr. Ruche lifted the lids of the pans in turn: the veal was cooking in the frying pan and the shallots softening in the saucepan.
“You can argue successfully only if you are agreed on the basis for the argument. Once that is agreed, you can discuss the rest. I say something, you respond. I make a point, you argue the point, you refine your argument, I shift my ground.”
Do they really behave like that in French families? Do teenagers join in conversations like that? In some families they certainly do. I’ve been at dinner tables where they do.
And the parrot? The parrot is part of the mystery plot. I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say for now that Max loves the parrot.