I love the cover! And inside, although it starts a bit slow, it certainly doesn’t disappoint! This is a very engaging, funny, intelligent, heart-warming, (perhaps bitter-sweet is the word I want but don’t like) debut novel generally about life in a Jewish immigrant family of mathematicians. It’s a kind of loving celebration of that life and death as the group says good-bye to an outstanding woman who was a brilliant mathematician as well as a wife, mother, teacher, mentor and activist for defectors from Russia where she had had an incredibly difficult time as a child in the gulags.
The Mathematician’s Shiva
by Stuart Rojstaczer
2014 / 384 pages
(read and listened – both!)
The book is divided into 3 Parts but 4 time frames which overlap a bit in places due to story-telling and back-stories. It starts out in winter of 2012, eleven years after the basic tale the first-person narrator wants to tell which is of the death, funeral, shiva and the aftermath of his mother.
Rachela Karnokovitch was a noted Russian defector/immigrant and mathematician as well as the mother of our narrator Alexander”Sasha” Karnokovitch. At the book’s opening (2012) Sasha is remembering back to the day his mother phoned (2001) to tell him she was dying and wanted him there with her at her home in Wisconsin. So Sasha, her only child and now age 60 and unmarried, drives from Nebraska to be with her and get her moved to the hospital. There are others present – Rachela’s brother Shlomo and her ex-husband, Sasha’s father. Uncle Shlomo brings the booze. Sasha promises Rachela that he and his father will stay connected and after she passes the two decide to have a small, simple family shiva at the house. Bruce, Uncle Shlomo’s son, and Anna, a defector Rachela took in many year prior arrive a bit later. This is the family.
There are various backstories here – we find out that Sasha is a meteorologist, a huge disappointment to his parents, and divorced, a disappointment to his ex-wife. (And completely off topic – Sasha’s career is interesting to me because my late hubby was a research meteorologist dealing with tornadoes so I enjoyed some of the lingo.) Sasha gently leads the reader into the mathematics involved in the book – the Navier-Stokes equation (p. 41) and the natural turbulence in fluids -(hurricanes).
An equation is as solid as an oak tree in my mind. If it wasn’t, I couldn’t
solve it. People’s emotions are, on the other hand, much more abstract.
You, or at least I, can go crazy chasing after such vaporous things. P. 111
In Chapters 4 and 7 of Part 1 and a couple other places in the book, the narrative moves to the second major thread of the novel which involves Rachela’s own story as told in her memoir, A Lifetime in Mathematics. Again we have a first-person narrator, but this time it’s Rachela and the story is more straightforward. It’s a hard story – in her childhood she and her family were banished to a Stalinist gulag near Vorkuta (the place teems with bears), a coal-mining town in the Komi Republic, Russia, situated just north of the Arctic Circle. Bears are a part of The Mathematician’s Shiva and may even be symbolic of something.
Russia during those days was going through very difficult times including war, starvation and oppression. Being Jewish made their situation worse. And for Rachela, the hunger was primo, it transformed her and she carried the memory all her life. As a result, she hates the USSR and since her defection, they have pretty much labeled her as an Enemy of the People. That said, on another level she understands that it was the hardships and deprivation which prepared her for mathematics.
The war made me, forced me, to become human, to value life, to value
love, and to strive to live every day with meaning.’. P173
Mom’s life in Russia is as wonderfully well told as it is in the US where she encourages Russian visitors (artists etc.) to defect and has other adventures worthy of story-telling.
Rachela’s memoir also relates her studies in turbulence to life, psychology, relationships, and so on.
The story of Sasha continues to alternate with an occasional excerpt from Rachela’s book, Sasha getting a few chapters and then Rachela getting one or two, there’s less from Rachela. And within Sasha’s sections we have the whole backstory of his life with the result there are 3 time frames going on – 1. 2012, 2. 2001 (the Shiva), 3. Sasha’s backstory and 4. Rachela’s story.
When Sasha becomes aware that a number (400?) of mathematicians want not only to attend the funeral but to sit shiva with the family, he along with Bruce and Anna get worried. Rumor has it that Rachela has solved the Navier-Stokes and has kept the info with her. Otrnlov wants to know if the casket will be open.
Anna and Sasha discuss Rachela and other matters, themselves – kind of like real siblings might do in that situation. It’s rather touching and the reader gets to know them better.
And finally, after we are in tune and sympathetic with the major players, the opening sentence of Chapter 13 says, “The mathematicians arrived.”
Part 2 – The Mathematicians:
First sentence : “The mathematicians arrived.” lol –
They are all over the place and from everywhere in the world. They were mostly good guys but the one Rachela despised, Vladimir Zhelezniak and Konstantin Otrnlov also come and there are stories associated with each. This seems to be a book about stories and there are lots of them – I think Rojstaczer enjoys spinning a good yarn.
But Otrnlov has an agenda – he believes Rachela solved
the Navier-Stokes equation and hid the proof. He believes Bruce has it and is going to make a movie in Hollywood. Otrnlov really wants to be at the funeral, to find Bruce, to sit shiva, to search the house.
There are other characters and other stories and some of them get literary references – Aunt Zloteh who was the family’s good luck for her social, cheery ways is compared to Chekov.
This is just a sample of the plot – the math is limited and not necessary to understanding what’s going on although there is a connection in the idea of turbulence. That’s nice.
THEMES – other than the academic world of mathematics and Jewish immigrant life there is love and family and loss of various kinds. Also a strong and really interesting theme on the place of women in the world of academic mathematics.
Something about bears – Rachela had to eat them in the gulag, they were seriously scary there in the wilderness. In Wisconsin she goes to visit them at the zoo as does Anna and it’s where Anna and Sasha sit to talk. The bears need to be paid attention to- what are they meaning?
This is what Rachela worked on as described in Chapter 21:
“The Clay Mathematics Institute formulated seven so called Millennium Prize Problems in 2000, each worth a million dollar. One of them is the Poincaré conjecture, solved by Perelman in 2003. Among the remaining problems one is concerned with Navier-Stokes equations. These describe the breeze and turbulence in fluid dynamics. Engineers can solve the equation assuming certain conditions by using numerical techniques but a full theoretical analysis is still missing. How sensitive is the solution for small perturbations? Do stable solutions exist? The Kazakh professor Mukhtarbay Otelbaev claimed to have cracked the problem in 2013. Soon an error was detected in his arguments, and although he claimed that could be easily fixed, he is still trying to.
Some of the names mentioned are historical, like Julia Hall Bowman Robinson and Andrey Kolmogorov, Sophia Kovaleski, David Hilbert, but they and their work are only mentioned in passing. The main characters are all fictional.
Kolmogorov numbers are also quite real: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolmogorov_complexity
Discussion questions http://www.penguin.com/read/book-clubs/the-mathematicians-shiva/9780143126317
Stuart Rojstaczer, the author, is a geophysicist and was a professor at Duke University (NC). He is born in the US, but his parents, being Jewish fled Poland because of WW II. This is a clear link with the setting of this novel.