Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Parrot’s Theorem by Denis Guedj (Translated from the French by Frank Wynne)

Max Liard was in a Paris flea market when he noticed two men trying to catch a parrot. Disturbed by the fight between men and bird, the young Max, who is deaf, decides on the spot to save the colourful wing creature. This interesting scene is the opening act in a highly original novel that manages to recite the history of mathematics, while simultaneously doubling as a mystery book.

The story revolves around the Parisian bookstore of Mr. Ruche, an elderly wheelchair-bound man who lives with a woman named Perrette and her three children, one of which is Max. One day Mr. Ruche receives a letter from Elgar Grosrouvre, an old friend who he hasn’t seen in decades and who lives in Brazil. In his note, Elgar tells his former wartime comrade (both fought together during World War Two) that he was sending him a vast library of mathematical books, comprised of volumes that were published over a span of hundreds of years.

Surprised by the arrival of this gem of a collection, Mr. Ruches soon finds out that his old friend Elgar was working on ground-breaking mathematical proofs, but for reasons that are unclear died in a fire in his home in Manaus. Was it murder? Suicide? An accident? And what does the parrot have to do with all of the strange events in Brazil and the two men in the Paris flea market? While this mystery forms the backbone of the story, the real meat of the book lies with Mr. Ruche’s “presentations” on the history of mathematics to Perrette and her children that are based on Elgar’s library.

This book, which was originally written in French, is reminiscent of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, which outlined the history of philosophy through a highly imaginative novel. The Parrot’s Theorem echoes Gaarder’s classic work by showing how math evolved from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century. For the reader, this brilliant story turns the history of mathematics into a piece of literature that is full of romance, obsessions, tragedy and genius. If I had one critique, however, it is the somewhat weak ending. While the original plot and history of mathematics makes this a must read, the weak finale takes away from what is otherwise a brilliant book. 

4 out of 5 stars