California Literary Review

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

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March 17th, 2010 at 9:05 am

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The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano
The Solitude of Prime Numbers: A Novel
by Paolo Giordano
Pamela Dorman Books, 288 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

The Singularity of Fate

Prime numbers are divisible by 1 and by themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. Sometimes he thought that they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they had been trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace. Other times, he suspected that they too would have preferred to be like all the others, just ordinary numbers, but for some reason they couldn’t do it. This second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving of images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.

Chapter 21
The Solitude of Prime Numbers

This book is a hypnotic journey taking us to a familiar territory in our lives, the place adult readers have already been to: adolescence. A startling achievement in a first novel, the work seems to have already touched a chord since it has taken Italy and Europe by storm and sold copies in the millions. It was undertaken by a young Italian physicist at age 27, who tells a haunting story.

Better yet, he’s a natural, adept with characterization, knowing how to captivate and hold his readers. If there’s enough to criticize in this debut, what shines out nevertheless is remarkable talent, someone to whom we might look for more and better to come.

A glance at the quotation above yields a notion of his potential — his style is already accomplished. Moreover, though his novel bears the sort of enigmatic title that begs for clarification, he proceeds for some hundred pages, sketching his people out before making this declaration about his theme idea. And by then, we’re already hooked. Take, for example, the illuminating phrase that describes his characters as “trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace.”

We encounter in medias res the two major figures who dominate the narrative. Alice Della Rocca, introduced to us in the first chapter, “Snow Angel,” tells us instantly how she hates ski school, hates getting up at close-to-dawn during her Christmas holidays, hates the woolen tights that make her thighs itch, the mittens that keep her fingers stuck together, the boots that making her walk like a gorilla. Above all, how much she hates her father! It is he who insists that she ski, thus causing her misery. Alas, before that chapter is out, we have learned about her accident on the slopes that handicaps her for a lifetime.

As for Mattia Balossino, the novel’s protagonist, we learn about his own troubled family — how he was the first born of twins, and that while Mattia was declared promising, even staggeringly quick from the start, his sister, Michela, lagged behind. We hear too Mattia’s earliest recollection: his father’s casual joke while they still had hope for his twin: “Those kicks you gave your sister did her some serious damage,” he’d chuckle. Michela persisted retarded. And as the truth became clear to her reluctant family, they must finally acknowledge that fact.

Only after some five years, when she had not yet uttered a word, was a speech therapist consulted (a touching scene depicts this pathos.) As Michela’s attachment to her brother grows cloying, his impatience and childish shame increases as he wishes to be freed from her. We sense the tragic consequences to come as trauma pervades Mattia’s young life. Certainly, when the boy’s sister vanishes without a trace while in his charge, guilt is embedded in his heart.

We follow the lives of these misfits growing to adolescence. Both turn inward, seeking a world of their own within themselves as they search their way to cope. Especially unwelcome and unpopular are they among cruel school mates, who spurn them; and each retreats even further. As most of us will recollect from our experience during those awkward school years, they can be humiliating.

Mattia turns to his skills in mathematics, to his unique ability with numbers, which he prefers to people. Alice pursues her own genius: she has a gifted eye, and seeks her way through photography.

But public humiliations persist for both in local schools. After failing, each is assigned to a special institution for the troubled where the two first encounter one another. It is a miraculous meeting for them both, yet even this originates as part of a malicious plot from the reigning girls clique in their new environment. These are devilish girls wishing to have the pleasure of watching “the cripple,” Alice, squirm!

The ingenious Giordano makes good use of such mischief as we get a view of the crowd’s response to their pre-arranged “sexual initiation” of Alice. The scene turns into a misfire. It is precious to watch as the two join forces instead and find consolation in their sudden unity. Moreover, this meeting comes just when the reader begins to despair for the two young people.

First off, these girls dare, goad, tease Alice as they stand about the locker room changing for physical education classes, with their “oh, so perfect bodies,” in their bras and panties, assuming “unnatural poses, sucking in their stomachs and thrusting out their tits…” Always, these are torturous efforts to pronounce, ‘Look at me!’

Next, they devise their master plan to witness her seduction. And she is soon surprised by an invitation to a party at the house of the leader of the gang, a well-to-do beauty named Viola Bai. Viola contrives to seeing their victim undone that very evening.

Asking the vulnerable Alice which of the boys at school appeal to her, and secretly scorning her “unlikely” choice, she invites him to her party as well. Alice’s interest is in the boy Mattia, regarded as a madman by their class. This assures her friends of a perfect ruse to cluck over as it unfolds.

Mattia too is astonished to get this invitation to her party. His first instinct, of course, is to refuse. But when he can enlist his only friend Denis to join him, he decides to accept anyway, just to ease his worried parents anxieties about his lack of ‘normal’ interests.

The susceptibility, gullibility and the pain which ensues at the party reflects the troubled young as they aspire to “join the crowd.” And we watch Alice trying hard to make herself appealing to the inhibited young man after she isolates him in one of the house’s large bedrooms:

“Why doesn’t he say anything?” Alice wondered. For a moment she wanted to drop the whole thing, to open the door again and leave, to breathe normally.

“But what would I tell Viola? she thought.

“It’s better in here, isn’t it,” she said

“Yeah,” Mattia agreed, nodding. His arms dangled at his sides like a ventriloquist’s dummy. With his right index finger he was folding a short, hard bit of skin that stuck out from beside his thumbnail. It was almost like piercing himself with a needle and a sting distracted him for a moment from the charged air in the room….”

So does their awkwardness together continue as Alice tries to engage him. She refers to his being thought a ‘genius’ at school, and questions whether he actually likes to study? His response is characteristic:

“It’s the only thing I know how to do,” he said shortly. He wanted to tell her that he liked studying because you can do it alone, because all the thing you study are already dead, cold, and chewed over. He wanted to tell her that the pages of the schoolbooks were all the same temperature, they they left you time to choose, that they never hurt you and you couldn’t hurt them either. But he said nothing.”

But it is when she dares to beg attention, asking whether he likes her and wants to kiss her that he shows his perplexity, and makes his discomfort unmistakable! That is when she comprehends the preposterousness of the situation she has allowed their foes to get her into! Suddenly she realizes how “idiotiotic” she has been to take Viola’s advice.

Coming to her senses, and explaining, she immediately assures Mattia that none of this matters. She begs him, to keep their lack of sexual activity a secret between them when they go back? In short, she asks for his collusion in their pretense, takes him by the hand and leads him back to that noisy living room, while trying to look as content together as they both can manage.

Upon their return each watches the disappointment, the rage upon the faces of Viola and her cohorts, and immediately feel a new triumph. And when the friendship between the two outcasts blossoms further, then persists, there is consternation on the part of such school enemies, who soon learn to let them be. Better still, these two find themselves nourished by their unlikely meeting and begin to see one another more.

Time passes as both develop into adults, and their individual paths must sever as well. Even so, when our mathematics genius is offered a teaching post somewhere very far away to the north of Europe, he feels a special panic that his departure will mean the loss of his Alice, ally and friend. He needs to consult her about his offer, above all, to find out from her what he must do.

And this parting is not without bitterness because of Alice‘s immediate reaction to his obvious wish to follow this opportunity. She considers it desertion. Yet, even now the true feelings of this pair remain unacknowledged and thus unspoken! Alice responds instantly, sharply, with a fabrication about not needing him any more, having fallen in love with someone she will marry. He is crushed and they part.

Many years go by, and we note the continued unhappiness of each, with Mattia alone now in a vaguely defined region of the north, a cold and forbidding place, and the other married to a man she does not love. It is particularly notable how landscapes here seem so deliberately vague — both in Italy and what might seem to be Scandinavia, given the cold isolation he complains of in his letters. (Again, much vagueness of geography seems purposefully a part of this writer’s style, in his determination to construct his own rules for storytelling.)

Only when an extraordinary occurrence makes for a reunion of the two do we watch how expertly our craftsman manages to bring his tale to its inevitable conclusion. We marvel at this true beginner Giordano’s flair, his ease in the art of fiction and await his next oeuvre with considerable expectation.

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