Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pythagoras’ Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery by Arturo Sangalli

This could have been a good novel. Unfortunately, weak writing and an inconsistent narrative flow undermine what is an otherwise interesting premise.

The story begins with a curious job interview between Jule Davidson, a mathematics professor at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, and a mysterious man who calls himself Mr. Smith. After passing a peculiar math test, Davidson is offered a strange job that is connected to the famous ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras. In due course, the reader discovers that a manuscript from Pythagoras (who in real life left no written records) might exist.

The original plot revolves around various elements. There is a modern-day, neo-Pythagorean sect that is searching for the reincarnation of Pythagoras. Parallel to this religious search, Elmer Galway, a professor of classical history at Oxford University, discovers an Arabic scroll that hints at a written manuscript by the ancient Greek master. Then there is the world renowned mathematical genius Norton Thorp who proves than the vast majority of math problems are unsolvable. How all of these pieces fit together is the point of the book.

That is why it is disappointing that the storytelling is so jarring and jumpy. Characters are introduced and then discarded quickly, only to re-emerge later in a clunky way. Narrative pieces that should weave together nicely instead come across as awkward. Then there is the ending that seems rushed (one gets the impression that the author just wanted to finish the novel), which is too bad, as the idea behind the finale is quite interesting.

This book would have been a lot better if it had undergone a more thorough editing process. Some of the ideas are intriguing, such as the “proof” by Thorp that a majority of mathematical problems are unsolvable, and then the implication elsewhere in the book that this is a false proof that has been presented for malevolent reasons. Instead of fleshing out this and other excellent ideas, however, the novel is undermined by a poor narrative, ho-hum writing and fairly wooden characters.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars