A prime number is a lonely thing. It can be divided only by itself or by one; it never truly fits with another. Alice and Mattia are both “primes” – misfits who seem destined to be alone. They are haunted by the childhood tragedies that mark their lives and find themselves unable to reach out to anyone else. When the two meet as teenagers, they recognize in each other a kindred, damaged spirit.
As they grow into adulthood, their destinies seem irrevocably intertwined. But when the mathematically gifted Mattia accepts a research position that takes him thousands of miles away, the two are forced to separate with many things left unsaid. A chance encounter will reunite them and force a lifetime of concealed emotion to the surface, but the question remains: Can two prime numbers ever find a way to be together?
The solitude of prime numbers is a stunning meditation on loneliness, love, and the weight of childhood experience. A sensation in its native Italy, where it has sold more than a million copies, it is a remarkable debut, a moving novel that lays bare the soul and captures what it means to be human.

“Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other. He had never told her that.”

 

 

the movie by Saverio Costanzo adapted from the book

 

the international covers

Giordano handles with a steady hand and a great stylistic maturity a burning subject.

Corriere della Sera


Defective love: stories of lives as separate as prime numbers.
by Cristina Taglietti
February 7, 2008

Prime numbers are divisible only by one and themselves, they are “lonely and suspicious” numbers that would, perhaps, “prefer to be like other, normal numbers.” Then there are twin primes, pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, or better almost close because there is always an even number between them that prevents them from really touching, pairs such as 11 and 13, 17 and 19, 41 and 43. “If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs become gradually rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated prime numbers, lost in that silent and rhythmic space made only of digits and you feel a distressing presentiment that the pairs you encountered up to this point were accidental, and that real destiny is to be alone.”
Mattia and Alice are two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not enough to actually touch each. Mattia and Alice are the protagonists of a surprising new novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano, a twenty-five year-old from Turin. It is a powerful debut, which seems to open a new phase in the so-called young fiction, which often closed in on itself, self-referential and with a rather limited ‘poetic horizon’. Currently completing a Ph.D. in particle physics and, for a time, a student at the Holden school in Turin, Giordano has an original voice (which reminds me a little of the Ammaniti of Io non hop aura, and a little of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) and a tremendous depth that allows him to tell the story of two children made different by the circumstances of life and to accompany them to maturity, alternating moments of tension, almost of suspense, with moments of restrained emotion.
It is 1983: Alice is seven years old and hates her father, who during the Christmas holidays forced her to get up every morning at seven thirty to go to ski school. One day, after coming off the chairlift she separates from her group because she needs to pee. But an embarrassing incident convinces her to remain hidden in the mist and she has to come down the valley alone. It doesn’t take much to end up off the regular slope and she ends up in a gully with a broken leg and the black shadow of the mountain hovering over her. A year later, in 1984, Mattia is in class three of elementary school sitting next to his handicapped twin sister, Michela, who non of the other children wants to sit beside. As he learns to read and write, Michela, holding her pencil like a meat tenderizer, spends the day colouring in pre-printed designs, meticulously going outside of the lines. One day in January they are invited to their first birthday party. As they walk hand in hand towards the home of the friend who’s having the party, Mattia thinks that Michela will produce the usual disasters, throwing crisps on the floor while everyone is staring at her, grabbing the the ball and not wanting to give it to anyone. So he has an idea: he leads her into the park and sits her down on a bench in a wooded area where families usually have barbecues but where at that time there is no one around. He leaves her there with her white boots spattered with mud, thinking to himself “it’s only for a few hours, just this once.” But when he returns Michela is gone.
In 1991, Alice is now fifteen and hides food in a napkin to throw it away a little at a time and believes her father responsible for the lame leg that she drags behind her. Mattia, meanwhile, is now a genius with arms scarred by self-inflicted wounds. Their paths cross at school and almost without speaking they discover that they are twins, almost as if they recognised at first sight the indelible mark, the signs that their actions have left on their skins. They build a “defective and asymmetrical friendship”, made up of long absences and much silence, a blank and clean space where both could breathe when the walls of the school were too close to ignore the sense of suffocation.” The author follows them, studies them and draws them with a dry and essential line. As a scientist, Giordano observes their lives apart at regular intervals only to discover how close they are, even if hopelessly unable to take the necessary steps to really be together. Mattia graduates in mathematics, Alice starts to work as a photographer. Mattia wins a scholarship to a country in Northern Europe, Alice marries a doctor who she met in hospital where her mother remained for a long time before dying of cancer. And even though he loves her, she is unable to give him anything because “the ‘love of those we don’t love is deposited on the surface and quickly evaporates from there.” And quickly (perhaps too quickly, this is the limit of the story) we arrive at the end, no happy ending and no melodrama, because the author proceeds by removing instead of adding things.
Giordano handles with a steady hand and a great stylistic maturity a burning subject, full of emotional twists (teenage torments, loneliness, the need to be accepted, bullying, but also guilt and atonement.) But what he does best is describe the protagonists as children and, in fact, the first two chapters are enough to capture the reader.

Mathematically and
humanly perfect.

La Stampa


Prime numbers of the world unite.
by Bruno Ventavoli
March 2, 2008

“Something terrible was going to happen.” – is the opening of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. And this is also how Paolo Giordano feels, the young author and latest revelation from Turin, who has managed the rare feat of combining both critical and public opinion. His debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Mondadori), has not only received the benevolent hospitality of newspapers and television, but is also climbing the bestsellers list (in yesterday’s Ttl, it was first in Italian fiction and 5th in total). “Yes,” he says, ironically commenting the unexpected thrill of success, “I have inside that little apocalyptic sensation of the beginning of Franzen’s novel. Maybe it’s a question of genes, perhaps its a generational thing. It seems there is always something horrible about to happen. Especially on Sundays. It is the Leopardi syndrome… on feast days things always seem worse. Then, fortunately, nothing happens.”
A lot happens, however, to the two protagonists of the novel, driven along by writing that is surprising, engaging and, at the same time, ruthless. Alice is just seven years old, when we meet her. Her father forces her on to the ski slopes, because sport, fatigue and the cold are good for her. In the fog, she accidentally wets herself and while trying to avoid the shame she falls, hurts herself, and ends up suffering the consequences of the accident for the rest of her life. Mattia, meanwhile, has a sister with a mental handicap. One day, out of annoyance and lightness, he leaves her alone in a park. And something terrible will happen also to him that will change the course of his life.
Being divisible only by one and themselves, they say that prime numbers (see the title) are solitary and suspicious. But in their complex family there are some that are even more special. They call them “twins” because while remaining alone, they are neighbours, separated by a single even number, e.g. 11 and 13, 17 and 19; 41 and 43. But the more you go on, the less frequent these pairings become. And in the infinite sea of digits they become increasingly isolated, lost, clinging to one another. Almost like Alice and Mattia, closely resembling each other for their wounded hearts, and who over the years will find each other and lose each other in the perverse curse of their loneliness.
A mathematical aura pushes Giordano towards the great band of authors who have tried to walk the tightrope between science and words. Twenty-six years old, with a degree in theoretical physics, he is currently doing a PhD (on the “decay” of the B meson). He is familiar with Musil, Gadda, Primo Levi, authors who have combined rational precision with the turbulent combinations of the alphabet. But it is not to them that he is looking. The literature that has most shaped him is that of Carver, the minimalists, or David Foster Wallace.
Giordano plays guitar and has produced electronic music, writing songs with a friend. “Without ever feel the urge to perform in front of an audience.” He has always liked to write, but perhaps the A4 sheets would have stayed in a drawer had it not been not the Socratic intervention of a librarian. Now, looking at the bestsellers list every week and finding your own novel is exhilarating. But life has not changed. He does not even know if or when he will begin a new novel. For the moment, he’s thinking of getting back to his friends. To the cinema. In his room at the university.
He was born when ’68 was already an icon. When the violence of the ’70s had fortunately come to an end. In fact, he belongs to that generation X or Y, or who knows what to call it, that is growing up before our eyes in a world of flexibility. “I never know whether to place myself among the eighteen-year-olds or those in their thirties. It seems to me that we live in a world that is constantly shuffling roles. I read in a book by Galimberti that once the future was seen as a promise, now it is seen as a threat. I agree. This is the mood of our generation. And it seems that our so-called fathers are not doing much to alleviate this atmosphere. But this does not mean we have to turn inward. The lack of established roles and certainty can also be an advantage.”
In the background of the novel there is a roughly sketched Turin. Anyone who lives here will immediately recognise, perhaps out of empathy, the hill, the Gran Madre, the laziness of the Po. But the city is never mentioned by name, because Giordano wants to escape characterisations. It is other narrative truths he is pursuing. “I was interested in writing about subtle marginalization, endured but also chosen. The two sides of solitude, where pain lives with terrible self-pity. In short, the mess that we all have inside.”
Having studied physics, certainly facilitates clarity and an analytical detachment in his writing. It’s almost as if he cuts the emotional cord with the characters he creates on the page. “Actually, I don’t really like the two characters. And I don’t even see them as victims. There was a moment of bad luck in their lives. Sure. However, I do not know how much to blame the context, and how much their desire to feel sorry for themselves. Pain often makes people selfish, cold, unpleasant. I think rather of the almost moral necessity of freeing yourself from adverse conditions.”
Right. Perhaps this is another suggestion from this flexible generation driven towards an uncertain and liquid future. We humans are not condemned, like prime numbers, to be ontologically alone. Allowing oneself to be divided by someone else, odd or even, without commas and without residues, is wonderful. Mathematically and humanly perfect.

A debut that is already
a definitive work.

La Repubblica


Alice, Mattia and the prime numbers.
by Marco Lodoli
February 9, 2008

Raise your glasses and drink to Paolo Giordano, a twenty-five year-old assistant professor of theoretical physics from Turin and a great writer! His extraordinary first novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, has all the wounded sensitivity of a youth that doesn’t yell and doesn’t provoke, but who can see things that others no longer see: “He knew how to make the story work. He knew that all the violence is contained in the precision of detail.”
Nothing escapes Giordano’s attention. He examines his characters with the ferocious delicacy of someone who knows that life is made up of fragments, all valuable, all sharp. Alice and Mattia are two children scarred forever by the misfortunes that made them different and special. She crippled by a ski accident and a heartless father, and him forever consigned to unhappiness for having abandoned in a park and losing a demented sister. Their stories intertwine but never merge, Alice and Mattia touch each other, love each other, forget each other, and rediscover each other in the course of time, but they are not made to build a world together, she anorexic and starved of love, he locked in to a dedication to pure mathematics, a soothing remedy for an impossible existence.
As I said, Giordano’s has a great ability to get close to the original pain of adolescence, to draw strength from the wound that never heals, but in the novel there is also a lot more. It is not merely the diary of awkward youth: with surprising maturity, Giordano is able to draw these two torn lives into the wider circle of the failure of an ontological human project. Anyone who has suffered so much, will always comprehend the misery of every shameless vanity, the inevitable collapse that awaits every project and every presumption. The Solitude of Prime Numbers, despite some fraying at the end, seems to me the most important debut of recent years: a debut that is already a definitive work.

His first novel is perfect.

Il Giornale


The secret pain that changes your life.
by Caterina Soffici
February 3, 2008

A broken leg and a retarded sister: 25-year-old Paolo Giordano’s first book The Solitude of Primary Numbers is a perfect novel.
Two solitudes cannot meet because in the moment that they do, they are no longer solitudes. It’s the same with prime numbers that are divisible only by themselves and by 1. “They are suspect and solitary numbers, this was why Mattia thought them wonderful.” They are different numbers. Sometimes they want to be like others, but they can’t. Then there are twin primes, separated only by an even number. They are close, but they can never touch. Which explains the title: The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Mondadori, 304 pp, €18).
The lives of Mattia and Alice unfold like two twin primes. The rub up close, the look for each other, but there is always an even number to keep them apart. Mattia and Alice are two children very different from their peers, life has dealt them both a duff card.
Alice is seven, she hates the ski club but her father forces her to go out at o’clock on a cold December morning. She ends up off-piste, in a gulley with a broken leg, wondering whether wolves hibernate. Mattia has a twin sister. But Mattia has a superior mind, while that of Michela has something wrong. They are in year three of primary school and Mattia abandons his retarded sister to go to a birthday party without running the risk of being made fun of by his classmates. But from that moment his life will never be the same again.
For him and for Alice just a few seconds will affect their entire lives. Just as for all of us. There are those who manage to pick themselves up and get going again while others remain squashed by the weight of those few seconds. Each in their own way, Mattia and Alice decide not to be.
Without saying anything more about the plot, Paolo Giordano’s book should be read quickly and is one of the most original and brilliant novels you will ever come across. Finally we have a writer who is young (rather than the “young writer” who turns out to be 40). Paolo Giordano was born in Turin in 1982, so is really young. But his first novel, constructed with the skill of a seasoned writer, is perfect. Nothing is forced, nothing clinically studied. It’s as if the words flow naturally from this young man who, the book jacket informs us, has a degree in theoretical physics and is completing a PhD at the university. We don’t really want to know any more.
There is certainly something autobiographical in the story of Mattia, who finds refuge in the cold perfection of numbers and as a child, when he watched from the window the broken lines on the road asked himself what law of physics made a line seem white to his eyes. The world is a chaotic magma that does not follow comprehensible dynamics. Mathematics, on the other hand, is something sure, the succession of numbers predictable and governable. Here it would be easy to find an analogy with the autistic boy in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (an extraordinary mind trained for mathematics but entirely unsuited to human relations). Or even A Beautiful Mind, which tells the story of the life of the schizophrenic Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jnr.
Genius or recklessness. Genius or diversity. But this would be wrong, because this is a book that deals with feelings. And everyone can find in Paolo Giordano’s book a piece of themselves, because the real protagonist of this magnificent story is loneliness.

we are certainly in the presence of a vision and of writing
which I highly recommend to readers.

l’Unità


Alice and Mattia, as lonely as “prime numbers”.
by Michele de Mieri
February 25, 2008

“The horrible white ceramic vase, decorated with intricate gold floral inserts, that has always stood in a corner of the bathroom, had belonged to the Della Rocca family for five generations, but no one really liked it.” Just a single chapter opening, like this one chosen at random, is sufficient to indicate the quality of the narrative vision in this first novel by Turin-based Paolo Giordano (born in 1982) which breaks both the generational and gender patterns that usually launch the careers of young writers. With a firm, polished and bruising control of language, he paints with light and clarity emotions, surfaces and inner annihilations, while avoiding the temptations of mimicry and youthful jargon. A language that is used to abstract the characters from the narrated time (which is indicated by the sequential arc of the facts – two lives, randomly sampled over seven years) rather than immersing them in it. Alice and Mattia as children, in a barely identifiable Turin, in their small parallel worlds, cannot escape the cruelties of childhood. The former, forced by her father to engage in competitive skiing, ends up with a permanent limp. Mattia will abandon Michela, his demented twin sister, in a city park, because he is ashamed to take her with him to the first birthday party to which they have been invited. The death of his sister plunges him into a solitude that will forever affect his relationship with the world. This is how Alice and Mattia move, over the twenty-four years covered by the novel, on the sidelines and followers of their peers, absent and distant from their parents, confined to a space that is both saving bolthole and prison. The only sensitive barrier between their inner turmoil and their fear of others is their bodies, tortured guards, the locus of control and verification of their obsessions, which for Alice is food, which leads to anorexia, and the horror of motherhood. For Mattia his body separates him from “feeling”, drugged against emotion, he has the impulse to bleed, to burn. His body is a page on which to engrave with glass and knives, printing wounds with fire to awaken from his torpor. While Alice chooses to become a photographer after leaving university, with precise design Mattia withdraws into mathematics, where he “knew that the disorder of the world could only increase, where the background noise will rise to cover every consistent signal, but he was convinced that measuring his every move was less blameworthy than this slow decay.” The seven temporal samples on which The Solitude Of Prime Numbers is predicated have beginnings but no sure ends, the novel ends and remains open to other paths, other combinational hypotheses, just like Alice’s failed marriage to a young doctor or some of Mattia’s encounters. The two unhappy protagonists felt similar to each other since they met at high school, but it was never enough because their solitudes opened them up to each other: the will remain as isolated as those prime numbers that mathematicians call twin “pairs of numbers that are close, almost neighbours, because there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching.” The most remarkable pages of this astonishing debut remain those of the first part, where the story of a bloody childhood is clearly evident, poignant and clinical along with an account of how the family, with its worries and desires, on any apparently normal day, can amplify the catastrophe. Although the urgency of this account is somewhat weakened in some subsequent parts of the story, even if Girdano’s background sometimes risks bending the story of Alice and Mattia to a demonstrative theorem, we are certainly in the presence of a vision and of writing which I highly recommend to readers.

The fascination of Giordano’s writing
lies in his deft delineation of the personalities.

New York Times


Counting on Each Other.
by Liesl Schillinger
April 11, 2010

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.

It’s a very accomplished book
and deserves all its success.

The Guardian


Repeat Patterns.
by Tobias Jones

A melancholy tale moves.
I was fully expecting, purely for reasons of professional envy, to dislike this book. Anyone whose first novel sells more than a million copies world-wide, and goes on to win Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, is bound to turn the rest of us slightly green. Add to that the fact that Paolo Giordano is the right side of 30 and that writing is, for him, but a hobby (he’s actually a particle physicist) and you’ll understand why I was tightening up my laces to give his pretentiously titled tome a good kicking.
But actually it’s a very accomplished book and deserves all its success. It is ostensibly a coming-of-age novel about two lonely children who had traumatic incidents in their childhoods.
Alice had a skiing accident, broke her leg and is forever labelled a cripple because of her limp. Mattia, meanwhile, abandoned his twin sister in a park; because she was mentally retarded, he found her an embarrassing encumbrance. She was never seen again. Giordano traces the next 24 years of their lives: their dislocation from society, their discomfort with their overbearing or overly solicitous parents, their distance from their school friends and even from each other.
The title comes from Mattia’s notion (he’s a maths buff) that Alice and he are “twin primes”, like 11 and 13, or 17 and 19, lonely individuals that are forever linked but forever separated. Much of the novel is taken up with the pair’s painful, awkward teenage years. There are, inevitably, prolonged episodes of self-harm and anorexia. There’s a tattooing incident and much anxiety about kissing and physical contact. There are many scenes about the cruelty, self-consciousness and forced spontaneity of adolescence. It’s a pretty bleak read but hypnotic at the same time because, like a helpless parent, you come to care so much about these damaged children.
Mattia is the archetypal child prodigy who finds it easier to relate to numbers than humans. He’s an antisocial character, unable to look people in the eye or unburden himself of his guilt. His only relationship in life is with mathematical patterns and geometrical shapes, with the result that he pulls out some pretty bizarre metaphors: kissing becomes “a banal sequence of vectors”; people wave their hands “as if imitating the shape of a helicoid”; when his legs tremble the word “anelastic” springs into his head. Alice is only slightly more functional. She tries to bring Mattia out, to coax him into an adult world, but she herself remains in the grip of a disorder. She’s repulsed by the physicality of food and her life starts to stutter to a halt like a car running out of petrol. Other minor charaeters, such as gay Denis or smooth Fabio, are equally convincingly portrayed, as are a series of tiny observations, such as the fact that during an argument inanimate objects become “terribly insistent”.
Part of the success of the book comes from its minimalism. Scenes, dialogue and descriptions are – in sharp contrast to the florid nature of much Italian fiction – brief, almost terse. It would have been easy to fall . into melodrama and produce a happy resolution, but Giordano remains as icy as bis characters,offering only misunderstandings and missed opportunities until the bitter end. The moment of truth comes with Mattia locked
in a bathroom, forced to make a decision. Instead of concluding that “things are meant to be”, that there might be meaning or purpose or fate or providence, he simply concludes that people clutch at coincidences “and from them they draw a life”.
Mattia, it’s clear, is not one to clutch at coincidences, let alone a woman.
It all makes for a melancholic, but strangely beautiful, read. Shaun Whiteside’s translation is exemplary and the acute descriptions of teenage competitiveness, angst and aspiration bring to mind Alan Wamer’s writing. In some ways the book’s cult status is similar to Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and perhaps for the same reason: it’s strangely enjoyable, almost consoling, to read about other people’s fictional tragedies.

Paolo Giordano,
the new wunderkind of Italian literature.

Ha’aretz


My loneliness touched upon yours.
by Liat Elkayam

Damaged love can be stronger than regular love, with an additional dimension of power and depth. It is not clear whether platonic love is defined as damaged love, but clearly, platonic love does not compose a standard, every day kind of love. How can a love that is not physically consumed grow stronger, and how can it grow when there is no redeeming touch that softens its edges? Paolo Giordano, the new wunderkind of Italian literature, believes there is a way.
Platonic love is the most condensed capsule of romance that exists. It is the idyllic in its purest form. The origins of platonic love lie in courtly love, a literary form of serenades and romances written in the 12th century where love was declared by a knight for a married lady who would never be his. The tragedy of Mattia and Alice, the protagonists of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, is that what separates them is not a marriage contract, tradition, or king, but precisely that which connects them in the first place.
The novel begins with the shattering childhood traumas of the two. As a child, Mattia leaves his handicapped sister in the park because he does not want to be taunted in a class party. The sister disappears forever and Mattia never overcomes the crushing judgment of his parents. Young Alice’s father dreams of a competitive skiing career for his daughter; fearing his disapproval, she speeds down the ski slope and ends up in a fatal accident. Alice becomes handicapped – with a permanent limp and a lifetime hatred for her father.
The two meet for the fist time in high school at the age of 15. Alice is an anorexic and lonely girl, who gives in to the cruel pressures of the popular clique she yearns to join; Mattia is a social outcast and numbers genius who cuts himself. His only friend is another outsider, a young homosexual who is in love with him. The descriptions of high school and the budding relationship between the two send the readers straight back to the small hell of adolescence. Forced games of truth or dare, humiliating stripping in the lockers – light blows which put our senses on edge. When Alice’s hand touches Mattia’s hand, “it felt as though the tips of his nerves became completely concentrated on the same point, and when he let it go he felt as though his hand was releasing sparks from an exposed electrical cable.”
This is the age when great platonic loves are natural incidents – a precise choice on Giordano’s part. In fact, there are no imprecise choices in this novel. The feeling upon reading The Solitude of Prime Numbers is that of a third novel, and not a first. If we follow the mathematical line delineated by the novel’s title, we find a perfect and balanced equation acquiescing to the rules of the plot – including its metaphorical title, clarifying the essence of the relationship between the two.
The relationship between Mattia and Alice grows closer into their 20s, yet remains devoid of physical contact. It reminds Mattia’s mathematical mind of the relationship forged by prime pairs; always together, but never touching (for example, 11 and 13). Mathematicians assume that the more one counts, the more such pairs appear. This is one of the most famous unsolved questions in the theory of numbers, but Giordano, a physicist by training, does not stretch the limits of his readers’ patience and mathematics remains on a clearly metaphorical plain.
With the passing of the years, the fear of physical proximity becomes less necessary, but the protagonists remain guarded. Mattia focuses on his beloved numbers. Alice finds comfort in the world of photography. The descriptions of the photographs are slightly kitschy (but Giordano is so young – a good looking 27-year-old – so he gains our forgiveness). On the day Mattia receives his university degree Alice – motivated by external pain and an unexpected suitor – acts for the first time in an effort which is clearly unfeasible to her. When she kisses Mattia’s cheek, “the breeze blows all the bugs away;” and when she kisses him on the mouth, after he reveals his big secret, he feels as though her light hands “hold his head firmly and take hold of all his thoughts.” These are moments of rarity. Giordano mostly adheres to descriptions of acts; when he strays, he does so with a gentle touch, and with the awareness of his characters, as though confirming their emotional handicap. This double disconnect – namely, the distance of the characters from each other and from the written approach toward them – works surprisingly well.
The novel continues to callously describe the adult lives of the two. An unexpected surprise awaits at the end, the kind of which cannot be revealed. One can only say that dark romance and chronic emotional pain permeate from every page. The tragedy, of course, is concealed in the fact that for the first time in their lives, these two could have lived happily ever after; yet at the same time, they are so alike, too much alike. When soul mates are fatally wounded in the same place, neither one can cure the other. They can only press upon each others’ wounds. The bleeding may cease, but the pain continues to grow.
Paolo Giordano received Italy’s prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega, and his work has been translated worldwide. Last week, Giordano attended the Writer’s Festival in Jerusalem and, predictably so, his novel is being made into a film. What is the meaning of the success of a novel about such wounded lonely souls? Maybe, this is the condensed story, which could take place anywhere. Maybe, it is comforting to empathize with characters whose greatest defects are so tangible and visible to the eye – and their source lies in early childhood. Or maybe, the reason for its success lies in the fact that every reader knows the feeling of parting with a loved one (those lucky ones among us have only experienced it once). The foundation for every true relationship is the possibility for hurting and being hurt. This is not a good reason to avoid love, but certainly an excellent excuse to read about it.

Paolo Giordano is the new star
of Italian literature.

Le Monde


Adolescent wounds.
by Fabio Gambaro

Paolo Giordano is the new star of Italian literature. Just 25 years old, with his amazing first novel, La Solitude des nombres premiers which has sold more than a million copies, he has received unanimous critical praise and easily won the prestigious Premio Strega. However, his scientific training – he is currently preparing a PhD in theoretical physics – had not exactly predestined him for literature. A bookseller friend, to whom he had shown the first things he wrote, encouraged him to write this touching and terrible story of two unhappy teenagers, Alice and Mattia, whose existence is represented as a desperate fight against the ghosts of a cruel childhood.
With an almost clinical gaze, the young novelist follows their parallel journeys between childhood and adulthood, where they touch, intersect, get lost and find themselves continuously. Two paths forever scarred by the traumas that overturned their respective childhoods. A serious skiing accident for Alice, unable to find other means to avoid the stifling authority of her father. And the enormous sense of guilt of Mattia, who was responsible for the disappearance of his handicapped sister, who he abandoned in a park for a few hours but was never seen again.
Not being able to shake off the weight of the past, both sink into a solitude that is both chosen and endured, while at the same time making their bodies the place where their unease and contradictions are expressed through anorexia and self-harm. After the painful and humiliating experiences of school, Alice, in an attempt to escape her isolation, tries to use photography as a way of getting closer to reality, while Mattia, while continuing to dig a hole around himself, uses his mathematical knowledge to control his emotions and protect himself from the chaotic magma of life.
A lame friendship. Unable to communicate with others, the two protagonists always seem out of place, distant, closed in on themselves; one rejecting the world and the other feeling rejected by it, without any of it “making much difference.” Isolated and lost, “close, but never really touching”, they remind us of those prime numbers “divisible only by 1 and themselves.” And their meeting can only give rise to a strange and intermittent relationship in which the solitude of one is recognized in that of the other. A “defective and asymmetrical friendship, made up of long absences and much silence”, between flight and tenderness, hopes and disappointments, that little by little help to heal their wounds, to grow and break free of the past, without forgetting that “the choices you make in a few seconds are paid for for the rest of your life.”
Giordano impresses with his maturity and a masterly writing style, but also for his sharpness and ability to render the precise emotions, failures, doubts and fears of his characters. He also shows great sensitivity and is at ease with burning existential and psychological issues, in which adolescence becomes the territory of all suffering and all loneliness. Especially when families – through selfishness or arrogance, incapacity or cowardice – are unable to help the two protagonists out of their captivity.
From this point of view, the judgment of the young Italian novelist on the family is remorseless. Given that the parents are not up to their responsibilities, it’s up to the teenagers by themselves to find a way out that will allow them to escape from the ghosts that devour them like parasites.
There is no trace of autobiography, and without wishing to speak on behalf of his entire generation, Giordano gives us an atypically formed novel that rejects even the slightest concession to the fashion for the “ young novel” and reveals all the tricks of a subject in which clichés are prevalent. Certainly strengthened by his scientific background, he maintains the density of his story with simple but always precise and effective language. A language that, without falling into easy youthful jargon, appeals here and there to irony to lighten the dark atmosphere that dominate the pages. And even if in the end the intensity falls off somewhat, La Solitude des premiers nombre is an excellent novel, a heartbreaking work without pathos, able to examine the depths of the torments of adolescence while also offering an original look at diversity and friendship.

Thanks to this young generation Italian literature
is increasingly addressing hard reality, real life.

Trouw


Alone, fragile and inaccessible:
the first novel by a twenty-six year old Italian conquers Italy.
by Ronald de Rooy
January 17, 2009

Even before you begin reading it, the book fascinates with its mysterious title and the motionless eyes and disturbing image of the cover, a very particular portrait by a young Dutch photographer (for more: rooze.deviantart.com) also selected for the original version in Italian.
The two main characters, Alice and Mattia, both experienced trauma in their childhood and are left with injured souls. In the case of Alice it was an episode related to a skiing lesson, forced on her by her father who had high expectations of her performance. “Good. And now show us who you are,” he would shout. But for Alice, a petite girl, each lesson was a torture. And she often ended up peeing her pants and on a day of dense fog in January 1983, her nerves and fear were such that she even filled her pants. She was so ashamed that she decided to leave the group and go home, but instead fell and broke her leg. Unable to move and terrified by the possible presence of wolves, she lost consciousness. And since then, every day of her life she has dragged behind her a reluctant and often numb leg that reminds her of that dark day.
Mattia’s childhood, meanwhile, instead is marked by the presence of a mentally handicapped twin sister, Michela, who was entrusted to him and for whom he felt responsible. Mattia often cuts or burns his hands and arms. Alice lives a life of insecurity and punishes her body by refusing to eat. The book never directly addresses these manifestations of self-mutilation, but their destructive presence is continuous and more than evident.
The two wounded and solitary teenagers meet at high school, are attracted to each other, but their closeness cannot work. While studying mathematics Mattia discovers that he and Alice are like two twin primes, “Lonely and lost, close but not enough to really touch each.” Alice has the same feeling: “Because she and Mattia were joined by an invisible elastic thread, buried under a pile of unimportant things, a thread that could only exist between two people like them: two who recognised the loneliness of the other.”
Individual identity is based not only on the past and memories, but also on projects, on the promises and dreams for the future. The tragedy is that Alice and Mattia, traumatized by their childhoods, live in the past and consequently find road to the future always blocked.
Only when they are together are they aware of this mysterious link, but in the essential moments they are not able to express and consolidate their true emotions.
Alice is the only person to whom, 14 years after the fatal accident, Mattia divulges the secret of his twin sister, but he is unable to express his feelings for Alice. “He had never told her. When he imagined confessing these things, the thin layer of sweat on his hands evaporated completely and for a good ten minutes he was no longer able to touch anything.”
And so both of their lives remain an escape from time, from reality. Mattia lives only for the abstract research of mathematics, while Alice tries to freeze and control life through photography.
But what is the explanation for the incredible success of this first novel? It is partly due to the author’s scientific and analytical training. This is not the first time that the paradox between beta and alpha has formed the basis of great literature. Among the greatest Italian masterpieces are those of the chemist Primo Levi, the engineer Carlo Emilio Gadda and Italo Calvino, a specialist in mathematical models. And certainly in this novel we see Giordano’s scientific training of, for example, in his perfectly controlled writing. The sentence structure is always accurate, the vocabulary and style always at an average level, never too high, or too low. But what is most striking is the way the characters view the world and themselves. Above of all, Mattia, who becomes a brilliant mathematician, but also Alice, who through photographic research applies the same hyper-analytical look to even the tiniest detail.
Giordano’s book is part of a long tradition of Italian novels that narrate the disappointing lives of children and adolescents. Popular writers such as Melania Mazzucco, Niccolò Ammaniti and Sandro Veronesi have memorably described pieces of a dramatic mosaic: separated families, unhappy children left to themselves, forced to soon to make impossible choices. Cruel and sadistic friends who use their more vulnerable and sensitive peers to indulge their perverse tendencies. Parents and adults who stand an observe, unable to intervene. Even the parents of Alice and Mattia are unable to find a solution to the problems of their children, so absorbed are they by their own guilt. Part of Giordano’s success is certainly due to the fact that many young Italians identify with disturbed and marginal characters like Alice and Mattia.
One cannot talk about an Italian best-sellers list without mentioning the courageous Roberto Saviano, author of the influential “Gomorrah”. Thanks to this young generation Italian literature is increasingly addressing hard reality, real life. Just like the end of the Giordano’s first novel. Most of the authors of the masterpieces of Italian drama, and this is especially true for films, are usually unable to resist a happy ending. A recent example is the dramatic saga of a family and a generation, “La meglio gioventù” (2003) by Marco Tullio Giordano, which ends, however, with a quite improbable and surreal scene in which another Mattia, who has died, unites the destinies of his his partner Mirella with his brother Nicola. In the end, the impressive thing about “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is that it seems to have a surreal and promising end. A choice of ending that nevertheless requires courage.

Italian literature most recent star.

ABC


The pain of growing.
by Yolanda Cardo
May 2, 2009

The Premio Strega and the millions of copies sold confirm the success, both in Italy and abroad, the first novel by Paolo Giordano.
Twenty-six year-old Paolo Giordano is the astonishing, simultaneous and unanimous discovery in various European countries of Italian literature most recent star.
He has already received the Premio Strega, the country’s most prestigious literary prize, and this young graduate in theoretical physics has triumphed also with readers selling over a million copies of his first novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a painful coming of age story set in contemporary Italy. A world of the scientists who have found a privileged place in literature in a tradition that recalls Primo Levi, the chemist whose terrible experiences in the Nazi death camps resulted in an immortal work.
In the case of Giordano, the focus of the story – the difficult growth stages of two misfits – takes place against an intimate, psychological and sociological backdrop. The toughness of the drama seems to pulsate within the four walls of a laboratory that examines under the microscope feelings and sensitivities that do not willingly succumb to easy interpretation
A petrified lyricism. At no point does the story lose its neutral air of clinical observation. It is meticulous and thin, with a dry and petrified lyricism that strips away the language of victimisation, even in the most turbulent and painful emotional moments. The result is a delicate and subtle fable about fate and the fragility of existence, as well as the ruthless social rejection, starting at school, of the different, of those who do not behave or who do not share criteria, confidences or experiences like those of the environment that surrounds them.
Alice and Mattia, two teenagers traumatized and besieged by the dark ghosts of their childhood, carry with them secrets that force them into an underground existence of isolation and enclose them in the invisible prisons of resentment, guilt and a vague longing for revenge.
Abysmal silence. As a child, in the mountains, Alice suffered a serious skiing accident that nearly killed her. It was her father who forced her to practice a sport that she detested. Following the incident, which left her lame, Alice began to nurture a deep resentment and irrational hatred of her father and the passivity and complicity of her mother. However, the hatred was most especially taken out on her own body: Alice is anorexic. Rejecting every bite.
Mattia, meanwhile, is a mathematical genius considered a geek by his classmates, someone unable to relate to others, who has adopted barbaric self-harming habits, which lead him to stab himself in the hands and arms with knives and other objects. Locked in an abysmal silence, his life changed on the day when, as a child, he left his retarded twin sister alone in a park to go to a birthday party. On his return, Michela had gone, never to be seen again.
Shared absences. Torturers of themselves, suicides without the courage to abandon a life they abhor and unable to love or feel affection, Alice and Mattia meet one day in the school playground. Both see something of themselves the in the other, someone hiding behind fear and loneliness. From that moment, an irreversible, indestructible, force like a magnet attracts them and a complex relationship begins that will last a lifetime, based more on gesture and shared absences than on words. A relationship with which they will once again punish themselves for the dark remorse and misfortunes of a past that only they know and told only to each other.
Paolo Giordano weaves his story with a beautiful and arresting metaphor about prime numbers, within which there are some that are even more special: the twin primes, which are always separated by the presence of an even number. Numbers that are “solitary and suspicious”, “squeezed between two others,” such as 11 and 13, or 17 and 19, and who remain close without coming into contact. Just like Alice and Mattia.