Counting on Each Other


In 2008, Paolo Giordano, an Italian physi­cist in his mid-20s, published his first novel. Called “The Solitude of Prime Numbers,” it won Italy’s most coveted book prize, the Premio Strega. Because Italy does not have a robust reading culture, the fact that this literary debut has sold more than a million copies there hints both at the extraordinary magnetism of Giordano’s voice and at the human interest lurking behind the left-brain mathi­ness of his ­title. (His being a blue-eyed, sandy-haired bel ragazzo probably didn’t hurt, either.) Already, the book has been translated into more than 30 languages, including, now, a flawlessly smooth Ameri­can English version by Shaun Whiteside.

Giordano took his title from mathematics, which is the passion of one of his two main characters, a brainy, emotionally detached boy (and later, man) named Mattia Balossino. Mattia finds magical potency in the tantalizing distance between numeric prime pairs — numbers like 11 and 13, which cannot be divided except by 1 or themselves, and that seem connected because of their proximity, but are not. “Between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching.” The existence of such pairs, which appear with greater and greater rarity as numbers climb into the millions and beyond, leads Mattia to suspect that “solitude is the true destiny.” He has a friend named Alice Della Rocca, a girl (and later, woman) who’s as damaged and sociophobic as he is. Mattia sees the two of them as “twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other.”

The fascination of Giordano’s writing lies in his deft delineation of the personalities congealed in these frozen figures. Mattia and Alice emerge like ice sculptures against a human backdrop that the author animates, but which the characters themselves don’t treat as real. They stand apart, outside — by choice and by compulsion. Writers and filmmakers have mined the romance of the “outsider” for decades and longer. But Giordano deromanticizes social alienation. Much of the pathos in these pages comes from the pain his emotionally crippled characters inflict on the people who care about them, people who don’t understand that Mattia and Alice are unreachable. Trapped in closed circuits of self-involvement, they resemble intelligent, defective automatons who inspire emotions in others that they cannot return.

Could a sensitive observer be expected to spot the difference? Recent scientific experimentation with “social robots,” used to help patients with autism or Alz­heimer’s (for example) practice inter­active skills, points to a nearly irresistible human impulse to ascribe feeling to those we care about, even if they happen to be machines. Writing in The New Yorker last fall, the doctor-writer Jerome Groopman spoke with a scientist from M.I.T., Sherry Turkle, who warned that patients often develop feelings about the robot automatons that work with them. The patients “start to relate to the object as a person,” she told him. “They begin to love it and nurture it, and feel they have to attend to the robot’s inner state.” Groopman expanded on her observation: “People begin to seek reciprocity, wanting the robot to care for them,” he wrote. The biological roots of this impulse go deep, Turkle added: “We were wired through evolution to feel that when something looks us in the eye, then someone is at home in it.” So is it a surprise if, when friends and relatives look into the eyes of Mattia or Alice (who are, after all, human beings, not robots), they imagine an emotional connection where none exists? Any love invested in them produces no yield. Nurture at your own risk.

Giordano’s loners have walled themselves off from their families and peers in reaction to childhood traumas they can’t get past. Mattia caused his: in grade school, he briefly abandoned his mentally disabled twin sister (with grievous consequences), so that, for once, he could play with other kids without having her in tow. Over the years, he expiates his guilt by harming himself with blade and flame, and making symbols, not people, his companions. His melancholy unnerves his parents. Once, when he materializes at home, quietly and suddenly, “like a holo­gram projected from the floor, a frown on his face,” his mother drops a plate in fright. And when he wins a foreign fellowship after college, she rejoices. “She hoped with all her might that he would accept, that he would leave this house and the place that he occupied opposite her every evening at dinner, his black head dangling over his plate and that contagious air of tragedy surrounding him.”

Alice’s calamity was caused by her father, who pushed her too hard to become a ski champion. At the age of 7, she suffered a fall on the slopes that nearly killed her, and left her with disfiguring scars, a severe limp and a sour worldview. In adolescence, mean girls torment her. “How she longed for the uninhibitedness of kids her age, their vacuous sense of immortality,” Giordano writes. “She yearned for all the lightness of her 15 years, but in trying to grasp it she became aware of the fury with which the time at her disposal was slipping away.” She blames her father for her maladjustment. “You’ve ruined me forever,” she coldly accuses, when he refuses to let her get a tattoo. But does she let herself off too easily? Does she bear no responsibility for her own improvement? Anorexic, neurotic and hostile, Alice sulks and rebels until she meets Mattia, and the two misfits come together — almost. For her, he represents the “end of that tangle that she carried within herself,” which she may never unknot. For him, she is a vector that may not exist. The cruelty of the punishments they impose on themselves and the delicacy of their rapprochement (which gathers momentum only to jerk back, as if yanked by an invisible choke-chain) form an ominous, fitful dance that only they can share.

And yet, as Mattia and Alice grow older, goodhearted men and women fall for them, drawn by their diffidence. What is it that sometimes leads people to endow troubled, broken, self-involved figures with mysterious powers of attraction? Do their frailties and fractured perceptions make them more interesting than strong, well-rounded partners?

For Nadia, a translator in the foreign city where Mattia studies, his weirdness compels her. She knows he is “strange,” but so are most mathematicians, she rationalizes: “The subject they studied seemed only to attract sinister characters.” Lured by Mattia’s nonchalance, she sees “something in his eyes, a kind of shining molecule drowning in those dark pupils, which, Nadia was sure, no woman had ever been able to capture.” She tells him: “I don’t know what’s wrong with you. But whatever it is, I think I like it.” Poor Nadia. How can she achieve even the phantom attachment of “twin prime” status with Mattia? To him, she’s “merely a name and a sequence of numbers, mostly odd numbers.”

Meanwhile, back in Italy, a young doctor named Fabio courts Alice. He easily could win the love of a warm, sane, caring, capable woman, but instead woos wounded, remote Alice, who conceals her anorexia and eyes Fabio with revulsion as he chews his evening meal. He perceives too late the one-sidedness of their bond. “I want to feel my bones crumbling,” she tells him defiantly, as he pushes for normalcy she can in no way supply. “I want to block the mechanism.” Garbo said it more simply: “I want to be left alone.”

The story — the explanation, really — of how two people come to find solitude more comforting than companionship is the subtle work of Giordano’s haunting novel, a finely tuned machine powered by the perverse mechanics of need.