Friday, June 10, 2011

Review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Soulmates, they are called. In Plato’s The Symposium, it is said that humans originally consisted of four arms, four legs, and a two-faced head. Zeus feared their power so he tore them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves. But what if they are destined never to meet? What if they are seeking for the safe refuge of solitude instead of the missing piece that would complete them?

I usually don’t pick books about hackneyed tales of finding your soulmate or Prince Charming, so I’m grateful to Lady Luck or whoever is responsible for pre-programming this sweet serendipity: stumbling upon a copy of The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. The idea that some people are similar to prime numbers—lonely things, only divisible by themselves or by one—struck a chord with me, and I started pondering how two ‘primes’ can be soulmates. Even in mathematics, prime numbers cannot end up next to each other.


This book in one sentence: it’s a literary gem that toyed cleverly with my brain and at the same time sent my heart pounding with bittersweet ache.

There’s not so much to say about the plot; it’s practically like a rather depressing compilation of anecdotes, or pages from a journal containing quotidian happenings in the life of two pariahs. The characters are something though. Without treading on the Mary Sue grounds, the characters are fleshed out in convincingly damaged portraits. Misfits, Mattia Ballossino rejects the world and Alice Dela Rocca feels rejected by it. Their brokenness is induced by childhood tragedies that triggered emotional and physical changes to them—Alice becomes anorexic and Mattia starts to cut whenever he’s under stress. Their broken natures magnetized each other and in my mind they formed the image of the “cleaved” humans from The Symposium. They can fill out each other’s incompleteness. But what prevents them from joining is that they are like “twin primes”, or prime numbers that are separated only by an even number: 11 and 13, 17 and 19, 41 and 43… close but not close enough to touch.

The span of the novel is from 1983 to 2007, chronicling the happenings in the lives of the two characters in alternating viewpoints. Giordano’s writing—which is elegantly elegiac—captured every moment with poetic beauty. I’ve always heard that describing/explaining something too much is a no-no, since you’re not leaving enough wiggle room for the readers. No legwork at all. But in the adroit hands of Giordano it is different; the more he explains, the more the meaning is conveyed. His understated descriptions are both cerebral and emotional, and though they were frequent, they didn’t look overdone. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions in the perspective of Mattia, a math genius who tends to look at things numerically or scientifically whenever he feels tensed (i.e. when he approximates the diameter of a woman’s loopy earrings or when he tries to guess what geometrical shape the sinking sun in the horizon makes). And when Giordano’s describing emotional scenes, the elegance of his subtle prose is amazingly effective. Like in this kiss:
“All Mattia saw was a shadow moving toward him. He instinctively closed his eyes and then felt Alice’s hot mouth on his, her tears on his cheeks, or maybe they weren’t hers, and finally her hands, so light, holding his head still and catching all his thoughts and imprisoning them there, in the space that no longer existed between them.”
If you want a soulmate story with a happy-ever-after, this is not for you. The characters have suffered greatly apart that you think they deserve a happy ending, and it’s going to have you looking through rose-colored spectacles. I remember trying to keep the tears at bay as I stayed up in the wee small hours of the morning to finish it, knowing that the characters will not be together because of one stupid decision. I remember wanting to throw the book away because the characters had the chance to be happy yet they made a stupid choice again, and the remaining pages are not enough for them to give each other another chance. It’s… ineffable, really.

Tackling the complexity of human relationships at its core, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a poignant and haunting tale overall. I highly recommend it.



    1. Sheresh, hi! Like what I said, I don't want to be redundant, but thanks a lot! Oh, I'd love meeting you guys too. I'm gonna look forward to that day. :)