The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

January 11, 2011

This Tournament of Books longlist selection seduced me with its allusions to math and its connections to physics, two subjects I find fascinating. The author is, according to the book jacket, “a professional physicist” who is currently working on his doctorate in particle physics. The novel won the Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, so promised to be worthwhile even if it did not make the ToB cut. It has kept its promise to me.

Knowing next to nothing of Italian, I read the novel in English. This places me one additional step removed from the author. The book has some clunky phrasing and relies too heavily on “then” to assure the reader that chronology matches sentence order. At one point, Mattia looks “out the opaque windows of the atrium”. (And he does actually see the landscape when he looks out, so this is not a metaphorical “looking out”.) I do not know whether these missteps are the fault of Giordano or his translator, but they are of only slight consequence. These occasional discordant notes are, happily, interspersed with some nice attention to the details of growing up and relationships.

The novel opens with Alice Della Rocca preparing for ski school on a morning in 1983. She is six years old and hates ski school. Her father is anxious to get her to the slopes, so Alice gulps her breakfast milk to please him. The milk will be her undoing. She joins her ski school class, says ciao to her father, and starts up the mountain. About halfway up, she has to use the restroom. Rather than alerting the instructor, she separates herself from the group to relieve herself surreptitiously. This decision, made in a moment to avoid embarrassment, leads to tragedy.

From Alice’s life, we move to Mattia Balossino who has a twin. Where Mattia is intellectually gifted, his sister Michela is significant mental impairments. Mattia has never been to any child’s birthday party but his own and Michela’s. In his third year of primary school, a classmate finally invites him to a birthday party. The classmate invites his sister too. Mattia, who has suffered considerable isolation because of his always present but oblivious sister, is crestfallen that the invitation is not his alone. At home, he broaches the possibility of going to the birthday party without Michela. His mother is disappointed in him. Mattia wants only to spend some time at the party without Michela, being a normal boy. His chosen method of obtaining his freedom chains him to that moment for the remainder of his life.

Both of these early scenes are written with an uncluttered poignancy. The characters are set on trajectories that, the reader knows, will eventually intersect. Giordano takes his time, developing the characters and their existence as misfits. High school is quite difficult for both of them, at least until they find each other. I expected a fairly conventional love story once they had met. I believe my expectations were somewhat justified by this passage:

The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other’s, through their arms and fingers.

The marked contrast between Alice’s light-colored hair, which framed the excessively pale skin of her face, and Mattia’s dark hair, tousled forward to hide his black eyes, was erased by the slender arc that linked them. There was a shared space between their bodies, the confines of which were not well-delineated, from which nothing seemed to be missing and in which the air seemed motionless, undisturbed.

Giordano subverts expectations for this high school romance. Alice and Mattia are broken people and Giordano does not shy from showing their frailties in a realistic light. While they balance each other, they do not “complete” one another or erase the mistakes from each other’s past. Mattia and Alice are not pieces to a puzzle that snap into place and live happily ever after. I applaud Giordano for this realism which helps to raise The Solitude of Prime Numbers above the triteness of Nicholas Sparks (at whom I somehow feel free to take shots though I have never opened one of his vacuous romances).

But, the best part of the book is, frankly, the central conceit of the novel and the passage around which, I believe, the novel must have been written. I will tease you with only a portion of Giordano’s excellent discussion of prime numbers:

You encounter increasingly isolated primes [as you search the set of whole numbers for primes], lost in that silent, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs [(e.g., 11, 13; 41,43)] encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly.

The concept is evocatively beautiful. This is math for romantics. Or maybe just romance for nerds. Giordano’s novel fits nicely around this idea and its bleak but not hopeless consequences. By tying Mattia’s mathematical abilities to the less logical realm of love, Giordano elevates both number theory and romance. It is a nice accomplishment and one worthy of an audience. I have my doubts that it will be enough to survive the ToB brackets, but the novel would make a worthy contender.

I do have one final complaint. This is not a novel that gets chess right, though it does get romance right. A friend of Mattia’s compares the initiation of a kiss and sexual intimacy.

Once Denis, talking about himself, had told him that all opening moves were the same, like in chess. You don’t have to come up with anything new, there’s no point, because you’re both after the same thing anyway. The game soon finds its own way and it’s only at that point that you need a strategy.

While it is true that only very good chess players are likely to come up with anything newly valuable to chess in the opening, this does not mean lesser players need not worry until later about strategy. The strategy for all players begins at least by the opening (and for top level players before the game even starts). While there are thousands of named openings (or variations on named openings), it is a strategic choice for white to pick the solid d4 rather than the more dynamic e4. Likewise, whether black responds to white’s e4 with the c5 of the Sicilian Defense, the e6 of the French Defense, or the e5 of the Ruy Lopez Defense (The Spanish Game) is a crucial strategic decision. Denis’s analogy does work better for poor players who know nothing about openings, but only because they will likewise know little about chess strategy. Everything, then, is tactics.

So, of all the things that The Solititude of Prime Numbers gets right, chess is not one of them. The mathematics, however, more than makes up for this failure. And I find consolation in the fact that Giordano did not demonstrate Mattia’s genius by his winning every chess game he ever played.