Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

The Mathematician’s Shiva. Stuart Rojstaczer. Penguin Group (USA). September 2014. 384 pp.  ISBN#: 9780143126317.

Alexander "Sasha" Karnokovitch’s mother is dying and he would like to protect her final days and the aftermath of her death with a small family’s presence and quiet dignity.  But Rachela is one of the most famous mathematicians in the world and it is believed she secretly had solved the most difficult mathematical problem in the world, the Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem.  They fear she will take it to her grave and therefore plan on being there to find it either before she is laid to rest or before the family takes control of her material legacy.  Sasha is just as determined to keep order and not let these crazy people create chaos and dissension in the days ahead.
Sasha is mourning, both before and after his mother’s death, a great woman.  He knows perhaps she wasn’t the warmest mother to him but she was definitely a “brilliant” mother, a woman who always used reason and common sense in her advice to him.  She spends the few months before she dies trying to do years’ work as she wanted to leave nothing unfinished. Such determination and fortitude marks her mothering of Sasha, who has also become a renowned geophysicist.  Reason and common sense borne of suffering are the hallmarks of Rachela’s parenting.

We learn from her own words the suffering she and her family endured as a Polish Jewish Russian in WWII. It was a time when individuals abandoned family members in order to survive.  Later on, the fact that she was a woman in the world of mathematics totally dominated by men led to this same survival instinct rearing its head; victory was the reward but a victory borne out of incredibly hard work coupled with obsession and highly creative thinking.

Interspersed between the meetings of family and friends are Rachela’s own words about her own moving, dynamic life. It includes her meeting with the man who was to be the mentor behind her career, a man whose genius has remained unsurpassed except perhaps by Rachela.  Years later, the mathematicians who gather to sit Shiva are a crazy lot who converse in a slapstick comic style.  Their time together, monitored and limited by Sasha’s rules, is a mixture of sadness, speculation, careful and not so careful questions, and just plain schmoozing back and forth. It has smatterings of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Woody Allen humor and dialogue. For Sasha, it’s endearing and crazy-making in this world of geniuses with whom his mother had worked, lived and loved. It’s a truly abnormally normal family Shiva, a delight!

Stuart Rojstaczer has written a very clever novel about the past and present as well as the allowing us to share the minds and hearts of those who foster and share sheer genius!

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