MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Apeirogon: A Novel (2020)
Colum McCann
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This novel with a mathematical title is based on the real lives of two peace activists, Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, both fathers of young daughters who died violently in the ongoing conflict between their peoples. Each father gets 500 sequential sections in the book, numbered first in increasing order and then in decreasing order. Between those they share a single section numbered 1001.

The explicit mathematical references all occur in the first half of the book that focuses on Bassam Aramin. They begin with a reasonably precise mathematical definition of its title:

(quoted from Apeirogon: A Novel)

181

Apeirogon: a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.

182

Countably infinite being the simplest form of infinity. Beginning from zero, one can use natural numbers to count on and on, and even thought the counting will take forever one can still get to any point in the universe in a finite amount of time.

(For a more rigorous definition, see this entry at Wolfram's Math World.)

Math connects to the plot of the novel when Aramin is an inmate at an Israeli prison and his guard, who happens to be a graduate student studying mathematics, notices that his prisoner ID number is mathematically interesting:

(quoted from Apeirogon: A Novel)

They had fought at first, he and Hertzl. Hertzl was tall and thin and sharp-faced with a prominent Adam's apple. He was raised an Orthodox Jew and had studied mathematics as a student in Tel Aviv. He was taken by the fact that Bassam's prison number was 220-284. Something to do with what her called amicable numbers.

Bassam tried to remember a school lesson about al-Kwarizmi and the House of Wisdom. He couldn't recall it entirely, but told Hertzl that all go math had come from the Arabs, everyone knew that. The two started talking. Quietly and insistently at the door of his cell.

Cleverly, the next section is numbered 220 and that is where the author defines amicable numbers and explains why the numbers 220 and 284 are paired in this way, "as if those different things of which they are comprised can somehow recognize one another".

Of course, the analogy here is that Hertzl and Bassam are like those amicable numbers, different but somehow amicably connected:

(quoted from Apeirogon: A Novel)

222

On the day he left prison, Bassam cut out his number from the chest of his prison uniform. Later he sent the cloth badge to the prison guard Hertzl.

Hertzl framed the badge -- 220-284 -- and hung it on the wall in his office in the Department of Mathematics in Hebrew University where he had begun to work on ideas of harmonic integration.

Even Hertz's topic of research seems to have a clever double meaning here, referring both to the mathematical integration of harmonic functions and also possibly to the idea of two cultures living together peacefully in an integrated society.

Please don't misunderstand me: math is only one tiny piece of this novel that focuses on many small details to provide some context to the tragic deaths of the two daughters which, sadly, are not fiction. I presume that Hertzl and the entire mathematical component of the story was the creation of the author. (Please correct me if I'm mistaken.) If so, then I would argue that the author is creatively using mathematical fiction as a way to add some beauty and meaning to some of the ugly truths of the real world. Despite the choice of a mathematical title, mathematics is not a particularly important component and the only mathematician is a relatively minor character. But, the little bit that is there is used very effectively.

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(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Apeirogon: A Novel
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin (Author) / Christiana Hills (Translator)
  2. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
  3. Touch the Water, Touch the Wind by Amos Oz
  4. La Resta [The Remainder] by Alia Trabucco Zerán
  5. A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved
  6. Three Days and a Child by Abraham B. Yehoshua
  7. Miss Havilland by Gay Daly
  8. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  9. The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
  10. The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze: A Mathematical Novel by Alex Kuo
Ratings for Apeirogon: A Novel:
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:
2.5/5 (2 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
5/5 (2 votes)
.

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifWar,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Infinity, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)