Denis Guedj


The Parrot’s Theorem


Can’t say I was impressed as the recommendations encouraged me to be.


I like the idea – it’s cool when gifted academics who love their subject can make it palatable for the uninitiated (as Lodge, for example, can do with literary theory on a good day). Even better if they can then incorporate it into an entertaining plot.


Alas, this is another Sophie’s World, where plot and character are overwhelmed by lecture notes. It simply isn’t convincing to paint his target audience – those X-box playing, eye-brow pierced, hip-hop teenagers represented by Jon-and-Lea – going into raptures over calculus. We’re supposed to be taken in, seriously, by passages such as:

‘Well, why do we have a result which is patently absurd?’ Jonathan asked again.

‘Because of my hypothesis’, Lea looked down.

‘And what was your false hypothesis again?’

‘That there is a fraction which, squared, equals 2: a2/b2 = 2.’

‘Then get rid of it!’

The twins picked up two forks from the table and began tapping a reggae beat on two wine glasses, singing:

We know that

By our action

We’ve proved that there is no fraction

Which, squared, could equal 2,

It’s true, it’s true.

A round of applause greeted this Bob Marley version of their proof…

Oh really? OK, he’s turned a proof into dialogue involving teenagers, and dropped Bob Marley’s name, but this simply is not enough to make this cool or credible (indeed, its transparency makes it the opposite). This is not an aberrant passage: the family are constantly bursting into rapturous applause or riotous laughter over some algebraic expression. Doubtless Guedj tortured himself in trying to break down various theories to their barest and most understandable forms, but the reactions he paints in his imagined audience are wildly different from those of the actual readers. It’s like the self-deceptive optimism of canned laughter in a dodgy sit-com.


He has succeeded in incorporating some interesting history of mathematics into something more palatable than a straight non-fiction primer: I particularly enjoyed the fascinating biographical anecdotes around some of the individual mathematicians. The characters interwoven make it more possible to get through some of the theory, but I don’t think he was successful in integrating his plot with that of the chronology of maths theory. The characters are interesting, but their relationships and reactions strain credibility too far, and the pages of theory usually do nothing to enhance or inform the plot.


October 2007