Even if you know as little about mathematics as I do and wouldn’t recognize the upper limit theory if it came up and bit you, you won’t be able to resist this story of a group of brilliant young mathematicians in Budapest in 1938 as Hitler moves in. Excluded from university because they’re Jewish, they continue to meet every day to talk maths and politics. They don’t know at this stage how bad things will get, but they know they have no academic chance in Hungary. So when there’s a chance for the most brilliant of them, Pali, to get to America to study, Eszter decides to make it happen.
We look back at this from Sydney in 2007, through the eyes of Eszter’s daughter Illy:
This sense of mystery and evasiveness is typical of Illy’s parents, the way they always seemed to operate, never straightforward about anything. Illy has long accepted the deep silence around her mother’s early life in Hungary – that hallowed ground is too sacred to be walked on. But why the sense of mystery about everything else? Like how they’d ended up in Australia when they had initially emigrated to America, where Illy was born. Why the denial of their remaining family members in America….? (76)
Illy’s father was a cranky, domineering man, bitter at never achieving the academic career he wanted, keeping Eszter submissive and appeasing. With his death, Eszter is ready to explain the past, but in her usual evasive way, via a diary that she leaves under Illy’s nose but never refers to. The voice of the young Eszter is interwoven with Illy’s own story and the stories of her son Josh and daughter Zoe. Miriam Sved deals tenderly with them, but the real spark and drive of the story is Eszter, and, strangely enough, the fascination of mathematics. What I’ll remember from this book is not the detail of the narrative, but the combination of youth, friendship and intellectual excitement, and the dignity of intellectual endeavour even in the worst of times.
And what a great title!