Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (Greece)

Leonard Euler
Leonard Euler, who received a letter from Herr Goldbach

by Apostolos Doxiadis

I have always been a literate person, but I’m not very numerate. Like the Uncle Petros of this novel, I invented personalities for numbers as a small child. Not because I loved them with a passion, but because I hated them with one. Mathematicians, it seems, are born and not made. Here is Petros reveling in his beloved numbers:

“65 appeared for some reason as a City gentleman, with bowler hat and rolled umbrella, in constant companionship with one of his prime divisors, 13, a goblin-like creature, supple and lightning-quick. 333 was a fat slob, stealing bites of food from the mouths of its siblings 222 and 111, and 8191, a number known as a ‘Mersine Prime’ invariably wore the attire of a French gamin (a pretty, slender person), complete down to the Gauloise cigarette hanging from his lips…”

The young Greek narrator of this novel has a romantic idea of his Uncle Petros as a great mathematician and black sheep of the family, in contrast to his father and boring uncle, who are mere businessmen. The novel is surprisingly readable, dealing as it does with two math men: One obsessed with solving the riddle of Goldbach’s Conjecture and one obsessed with solving the riddle of his Uncle Petros. Neither experience is entirely satisfactory.

What the Heck is Goldbach’s Conjecture?

Christian Goldbach
Christian Goldbach

book coverWatchers of The Big Bang Theory may be familiar with Fermat’s Last Theorem. (In fact I swear I could hear Sheldon muttering some of the dialogue attributed to the socially awkward genius Uncle Petros in this book.) Goldbach’s Conjecture is another famous, unsolved mathematical puzzle in the area of Number Theory. The back of this book offers ONE MILLION DOLLARS to anyone who can prove Goldbach’s Conjecture, for a limited few years. The prize was never awarded.

I’ve never read a novel with a million dollar reward attached before. Would have made me pay a lot more attention in geometry class in high school, let me tell you. Instead I sat in the back, trying to hide my open Pat McManus book under my desk. I was always good at foreign languages, but I flunked math because I didn’t understand (or didn’t care) that it too has a special language all its own.

Goldbach’s Conjecture says that every even integer (a whole number that isn’t a fraction) greater than 2 can be written as the sum of two prime numbers (by adding 2 numbers together that can only be divided by themselves and 1). It was an idea of Herr Christian Goldbach’s, in a letter to his friend Leonard Euler around 1742.

ancient greek mathHm. Greek to me. I need an  example:

  • ancient greek mathThe even whole number 6, which is greater than 2 = the prime number 3 + the prime number 3.

map of greeceYou can imagine that as I was reading the book, and they were trying to prove this idea, that I said wow, I’ll bet computers would be useful. Imagine doing all of this by hand. But men did. Then they tried computers. They still can’t prove it and I’m not sure why. I’m also not sure why it matters. I mean, it seems a bit less important than curing cancer.

Why Bother?

Well, for Uncle Petros, originally to impress a girl. Then for research funding, prestige in the scientific community, and personal and national glory. Oh, and money too. And intellectual satisfaction. And, I suspect, to give himself a chance not to have to socialize with people.

As the “most favored of nephews” changes his views on Uncle Petros from sad old failure to brilliant mathematician to cruel hoaxster to mysterious fraud and back again, we get to romp through a curious world where ideas seem to be more important than relationships, although it is this fallacy that will turn out to get Petros in the end.

I liked that the book was written so that I could understand what the math was talking about, even if I did not understand the language of the equations. Words, always words. Not those words.

Rating: 5 lima beans arranged to show a parallelogram of a Goldbach’s equation. Very, very good.








Circle of Kharma (Bhutan)

temples in Bhutantemples in Bhutantemple in Bhutanby Kunzang Choden

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

The Kingdom of Bhutan, high in the Himalayas, is a precious remaining bastion of Tibetan culture. Llamas, temples, nuns, and the idea of karma are woven throughout this book. It is also the first novel to come out of Bhutan from a female author, so I was particularly excited to read it.

The main character, Tsomo, has some serious bad luck, or rather, her karma isn’t good. She must be paying for some big sins in a former life or two. But she’s not a helpless victim of fate, either. When her husband tells her he’s fallen in love with her younger sister (UGH–this guy is what I’d call a pedophile), she doesn’t just sit there and take it. She packs up her stuff and hits the road. In her travels she befriends a much younger woman, finds another husband, meets a great llama, has adventures, and makes the lives of strangers better.

Bhutani PeopleIt’s unlike the Greek idea of Oedipus making his fate come true by fighting against it. It’s unlike the fatalistic Arabic idea of kismet that you can’t stand against–shrugging one’s shoulders and saying oh well, Inshallah. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Your karma is your karma, but you can still accumulate merit. There is hope, in other words.

Serious Issues

The novel tackles some problems in Bhutani society–extreme wealth that creates extreme poverty, such as that of the workers who are building new roads. Itinerant Mexicans picking fruit on the East Coast of the U.S. have it far better than these poor Bhutanis. And as always, the men have it better than the women. Rape is a problem, and the victim is typically blamed. Some women are forced to stay with their abusers, because they have no way to support themselves. Others wind up in prostitution for the same reasons. Oh, and that merit that you can accumulate? You get lots of it just by being born male. Females on the other hand…!

book coverAnother problem is the lack of compulsory primary education. “Father is a meticulous writer. Tsomo longs to be able to read and write and learn religion.

“You are a girl. You are different. You learn other things that will make you a good woman and a wife. Learn to cook, weave, and all those things. A woman does not need to know how to read and write,” Father says quietly but sternly when she asks him to teach her. Bitter tears of rejection sting her eyes. She hangs her head and lets the tears fall to the floor, unseen by the others. She looks to mother, hoping that she will support her, just a word or a gesture, but Mother just smiles and says nothing. Tsomo only sees the same curious expression on her face, a smile that merges into sadness. A smile of resignation and acceptance. Tsomo feels the same smile spreading on her own face.”

As I recall, that’s when Tsomo decides to hide and listen to the boys’ lessons–and memorizes the long religious chants for herself.

Despite some tough times, Tsomo survives and even thrives due to her ability to make friends and get people to love her. Usually other women, but also her guru. When hospitalized for T.B.–a serious disease now extinct in the Western world but rampant in the East–Tsomo makes friends with the wife of a hospital cleaner, despite not speaking her language. (In Bhutan, there are people from Nepal and Tibet and India as well as the Bhutanese.)

Bhutani FoodOf course, there are mean-spirited women along the way too, like the jealous old lady who pours scalding hot water on Tsomo’s chili seedlings when she thinks her boyfriend, “the lame man” is interested in Tsomo.

What I Loved

Imagine being totally immersed in a huge part of the world where everyone believes in reincarnation and karma…there are no MacDonalds, no Marriots, no traces of Western-style capitalism, Hollywood, rock-n-roll, or blue jeans. It was as if America didn’t exist. The same way that Bhutan doesn’t really exist for us. Oh, there were a few references to Muslims in the book, but they were a tiny minority. It was delightful to spend time in a country with an utter indifference to Wall Street, American politics, and Three and a Half Men.

the Dragon King of Bhutan
The Dragon King of Bhutan

I also loved the ingenious ways women found to support one another in a patriarchal culture–emotionally, physically (I mean by gifts of food for sustenance), and spiritually.

Tsomo has the kind of friendships that I do–life friends, like her nun friend Llam Yeshi that we find eating biscuits and drinking tea with Tsomo in the opening chapters of the novel.

“Perhaps the most enduring aspect of their friendship is that they lose each other for several years and then suddenly find themselves sitting together drinking tea and eating biscuits as if nothing had happened.”

Poor people in BhutanI could say the same for this novel–I feel I could lose it for several years, then pick it up and read it again as if nothing had happened.

RATING: Five chili seedlings! For every Bhutanese person loves spicy hot chilis. 😉 It must be karma.





Strength in What Remains (Burundi)

map of Burundicourtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

by Tracy Kidder

There’s no doubt that Kidder is a great writer–he won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Dr. Paul Farmer (although that isn’t always an indicator)! Dr. Farmer also comes up in this book–as the inspiration for a poor medical student from Burundi, who has the great misfortune to get caught up in not one, but two horrifying genocides.

The book swings back and forth between Deogratius’ new life in New York City and his old  one in Burundi and Rwanda. I think this was a smart storytelling choice–chronological order might have overwhelmed us readers with sorrow and anger. Deo speaks of unimaginable atrocities, like seeing wild dogs packing human heads around in their mouths.

“Deo Gratius” of course means “praise God” in Latin, a logical name for a grateful mother to give her infant son. A different custom in Burundi is to give children terrible names, so that the demons won’t want them. Growing up, Deo knows of a couple kids called Snarling Dog and Shit.

Remember Rwanda?

book coverA few memories, for a girl from Idaho–in the 90s, of Hutus and Tutsis killing each other on TV, and people killing gorillas in the national parks and chopping down all the trees for fires. Awful stuff, but it faded quickly. Not once do I remember Burundi being mentioned.

It turns out that the small kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi were lumped together under colonial occupation by Europeans, and that tensions between the native haves and the have-nots were exacerbated. But Hutu and Tutsi are not ethnicities. It used to be that if you had cows (were richer) you were a Tutsi and if you were merely a cow-less farmer, you were a Tutsi. Furthermore, people can’t tell by looking if someone is one or the other, like Americans can’t tell by looking at one another is someone is Jewish.

In Burundi, the Tutsis got the government and the military, and in Rwanda, the Hutus did. So their genocides kind of mirrored each other in a very sick way. Burundi happened first. Deo (who self-identifies as Tutsi) hid under his bed at the medical school in order to avoid being killed by machete-wielding Hutus.

A Caveat

pygmies in Burundi
The Twa in Burundi

It is only mentioned in passing in Kidder’s book, and this is the only fault I found with it, that there are also the Twa in both countries, the Pygmies. I seem to remember from reading about the Congo, that the Twa are the original inhabitants of these lands around Lake Victoria, and both the other groups are latecomers. What happened to the Twa during the massacres is not mentioned at all.

So Deo flees out of Burundi, helped by a Hutu woman he meets at the border, and survives in Rwanda for six months before the killing starts there. He flees back across the border and gets his half-French friend Jean, from medical school, and Jean’s father, to smuggle him safely to America under the ruse of working for the company as a coffee bean buyer.

Burundi mountains
A farm in Kirundo province, northern Burundi. Most rural Burundians are subsistence farmers.

They give him some cash, but when his money runs out, he finds himself living in Central Park as a homeless man. He’s got untreated PTSD, he doesn’t know which of his family members are still alive–if any–and he’s being ripped off by his employer, a grocery store that pays him $15 per day to deliver to New Yorkers. That is a 12-hour day, six days per week. His boss is sadistic. The highlight of Deo’s days are going to a nearby Barnes & Noble bookstore and looking up English words in one of the dictionaries he can’t afford to buy.

What will the rest of his life look like? Will he get to return to medical school? Will he ever meet Paul Farmer? Will Deo be able to return to his country and complete his dream of building a non-profit clinic there? (AIDS is on the rise…)


This was an excellent book, told by a brilliant writer, about a man with a heart as big as Africa. Five helpful ex-nuns called Sharon.

For more information on the violence in the region around Africa’s great lakes, see my blogs on the Congo and on Rwanda.