MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Fibonacci Confessions (2010)
Graham Wade
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A historical novel telling the life story of Leonardo Pisano, perhaps the most famous European mathematician of the Middle Ages, better known today as Fibonacci.

We know very little of the historical details of his life. Of his early life we know is that he was an Italian boy in the twelfth century who was interested in math and accompanied his father to Algeria. This combination was fortuitous, because the Middle East was far more advanced than Europe in terms of math and science at that time, and Fibonacci's most important role was to have brought some of those advances -- and especially the decimal representation of numbers -- back to Europe via his now classic mathematics text Liber Abaci.

The author of this novel, whose previous publications are mostly non-fictional works about guitars, therefore had an almost blank canvas onto which he could paint a story about this influential but enigmatic person. The sorts of things we see are summed up by a character towards the end of the book who says of (the fictional) Fibonacci's exploits :

(quoted from The Fibonacci Confessions)

[They] may however be considered grounds to annoy, offend, subvert, deprave, and disgust any Christian who has the misfortune to read them. Among them, [Fibonacci] admits to crimes and follies of his youth such as complicity in a salor's death at sea and the murder of a nomad in the deserts of Syria.

[Fibonacci] was also subject to lewdness including sinful intercourse with nomad whores, incest with his stepsister, and (oh the abomination!) unnatural desires for a cabin boy as well as similar perversions against a bastard nomad boy (whom he claimed blasphemously to have raised form the dead), in addition to a rampant infatuation with his wife's brother, his pupil.

Of course, these sorts of things are less disturbing to a 21st century reader than they would have been to his contemporaries. I almost wish they seemed more shocking to me. In fact, I must admit that I found most of the fictional aspect of this historical novel to be quite dull.

One thing which bothered me, and may not have a similar effect on other readers, is the idea of presenting the entire story in the form of letters to, from and about Fibonacci. The way people actually write letters is rarely conducive to people they know is rarely conducive to telling a story, and so I generally find that books written in this format either involve seemingly unrealistic letters or have a difficult to follow narrative. This book, for me at least, falls into the first category.

For example, Wade cleverly includes the eponymous sequence in a letter from a friend, who loved this sequence that Fibonacci introduced him to and urges him to write about it in his book. It is interesting to imagine that were it not for this request, the only thing by which most people today know of Fibonacci might not even have appeared in Liber Abaci. Here is some of the text of the letter from the friend:

(quoted from The Fibonacci Confessions)

But once you opened my eyes to this I could not shake off my fascination with the puzzle you set: If a keeper places on pair of rabbits in an enclosed place, how many rabbits would be created from the pair and its descendants in one year when it is their capability in a single month to breed another pair and in the second month the young rabbits are also ready to breed?

You did not, at first, provide an answer. . .

For days we played this game. . .

Like an alchemist changing metal into gold, you unveiled your thoughts with this explanation: i) At the beginning , month 0, there is 1 mature pair. ii) For month 1, this mature pair breeds offspring of an immature pair, giving us 1 mature pair and 2 immature pair - 2 in all. . . . vi) Continuing the same reasoning produces these numbers: 1, 2, 3, 5, . . . .

Do not forget to include this problem in your book . . .

I would have liked this better had it not pretended to be a letter to Fibonacci, since I do not think such a letter would have sounded like this, as if the intended reader had not been there and would not remember it as well as the letter writer. I mean, not only does he remind him of what he himself said, he ends up re-explaining the Fibonacci sequence to Fibonacci himself!

There are certainly some positive things that can be said about this book: it appears to be well researched, sometimes felt as if it had truly captured some of the feeling of this Medieval time period, and creatively fills in gaps in the biography of this famous mathematician in a way that is consistent with the little that we do know of him. This alone should be enough for some readers, especially those interested in this part of the history of mathematics, to get a copy to read. However, between the plot which really failed to capture my interest and the attempt to tell the story through a series of letters, I am afraid I cannot whole-heartedly recommend it to everyone. (Of course, I know there must be other readers out there who feel differently. I would be very happy to post your comments here for other visitors to this Website. Please use the links below to share your thoughts.)

I am grateful to Vijay Fafat for pointing out this book to me and to the author for sending me a copy to review.

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Works Similar to The Fibonacci Confessions
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Jester and the Mathematician by Alan R. Gordon
  2. The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt
  3. Continuums by Robert Carr
  4. The Measure of Eternity by Sean McMullen
  5. Verrechnet by Carl Djerassi / Isabella Gregor
  6. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  7. Émilie by Kaija Saariaho (composer) / Amin Maalouf (libretto)
  8. Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
  9. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
  10. A Disappearing Number by Simon McBurney
Ratings for The Fibonacci Confessions:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifReal Mathematicians, Romance,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)