Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Numero Zero. By Umberto Eco

Numero Zero

Umberto Eco

Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon

Harvill Secker. First published 2015

After 'Foucault's Pendulum' and 'The Prague Cemetery', this is the third of Umberto Eco's novels that deals with a deep, imaginary but widely believed conspiracy. The writing is far more lighthearted than the other two. Eco always writes with a mischievous sense of humour, spinning wild stories with a straight face, and making connections between virtually all events of importance. In this book, he is explicit about that, going so far as to choose E.M. Forster's words 'Only connect!' for the epigraph. And then proceeds to connect up current Italian politics with, first, the possibly faked death of Mussolini, and then with his possibly real death. 

The framing device is also a conspiracy. It introduces a media magnate - probably a Silvio Berlusconi surrogate - who wishes to publish a fake paper in order to scare and blackmail various celebrities, most of whom would have something to hide. He finances a small team of failed journalists to put together twelve issues of a paper with fake news. These first set of issues would be, he says, a model, and they would contain made-up news, based on events of the previous years. Thus they would be numbered issue 1 volume 0, issue 2 volume 0, and so on, leading to the title of the book. In describing the editorial conferences, Eco clearly savages actual modern day media practices, and not only of outlets like Fox News or Times Now. 

One of the team, slightly less cynical than the others, comes with the story of Mussolini's faked death. He says the dictator was not shot in 1945, as is officially held, but escaped to Argentina. He connects this episode with secretive fascist factions in many respectable institutions, even the Vatican. He builds a convincing narrative of these groups biding their time, building up their strength, and finally attempting a fascist coup in Italy to restore the dictatorship of 'Il Duce' (who is all while hidden in Argentine), only to be thwarted in their attempts by his sudden and importune actual death. He plans to investigate and gather evidence for his story, only to be murdered in mysterious circumstances. At this the rest of the team panics, and goes into hiding from the conspirators. At the end of the story, the narrator, who is one of failed journalists, starts to believe that in fact there is and was no conspiracy, and his fears are products of his own mind to connect up and try to find a common explanation for random coincidences. 

The book is funny, but not farcical. It can be, and is probably meant to be read as a serious but cynical indictment of the state of affairs in the media and politics, especially in Italy. Of course, with some essentially cosmetic changes of name, place and time, the stories would fit India, the US, and perhaps other countries as well. The book, in any case, is a brief, but accurate representation of the zeitgeist around the world. Umberto Eco includes as part of the conspiracy the possible murder of Pope John Paul I after only a month in office. He hints that this happened to save some of the officials of the Vatican Bank from having their embezzlement of the bank money exposed. The exact same theme connected to the Pope's death also occurs in the movie 'The Godfather Part III'. 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

They Do It With Mirrors. By Agatha Christie.

They Do It With Mirrors

Agatha Christie

HarperCollins Publishers. First published 1952

Another murder set in a rich country house, with a fairly large cast of conventional AC characters. The owner of the house also runs an institution to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents on the same grounds, and that leads to some tensions that are exploited to lend weight to the story. Once again, I could guess, fairly early on, who the murderer is. So that makes it four times in the last four AC books. I hope that at least the next couple are less predictable. 

The narrative is full of British right-wing views and casual racism, which are unacceptable now, six decades later. But again, I should not take 'a spade to a souffle'.

Love and Math. By Edward Frenkel

Love and Math. The Heart of Hidden Reality

Edward Frenkel

Basic Books. First published 2013.

The book traces the early career path of the author, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is well-respected for his mathematics, and popular due to this book, which made it to the New York Times bestseller list, as well due to a movie about art and maths that he produced, directed and acted in. He is the collaborator of the well-known physicist-mathematician Edward Witten. 

Frenkel was born in Russia during the late 1960s. He showed precocious mathematical skills, but was unable to have a clear upward trajectory in Russian academia owing to rampant antisemitism. In this book he describes his encounters with the academic bureaucracy in Russia as he came of mathematical age at the time of Glasnost and Perestroika. Interspersed with the inspiring tales of heroic dedication to maths are his wonderful descriptions of the mathematics. He does not shy away from complete and detailed descriptions of the most abstruse mathematical ideas and theorems, offering many detailed proofs, which, however, are largely consigned to the footnotes - not given at the foot of the pages, but collected together at the back. (I wish he had followed a slightly different format - for example setting these more technical portions in smaller type, but along with the main text.) So he starts with the symmetry of numbers, goes on from there to talk about symmetry groups, and different objects that belong to the same symmetry groups - integers, real numbers, rational numbers, irrational numbers and imaginary numbers - before going on to braids, which are also represented by the same symmetry operations. He talks about the Langlands program, about Galois groups and finite fields, about the Shimura-Taniyama-Weil conjecture and its connection to Fermat's last theorem, about modular forms and automorphic functions, about Riemann surfaces, manifolds, Lie groups, Kac-Moody algebras, automorphic sheaves, gauge theories, quantum duality, fiber bundles and branes. Obviously, in a book read over a week or so, it is impossible to convey anything but the most superficial acquaintance with these ideas. But even with this limitation, Frenkel conveys the beauty, the majesty and the mystery of modern mathematics. The best thing about this book is that excites the reader. It made me confident that the ideas described, while difficult, are not entirely in a different world of understanding, and that with a few years of effort, I, too, could access the concepts in satisfactory depth. Whether I will expend that kind of effort, of course, is an entirely different question. 

Frenkel is a modernist through and through, and has no time to consider, except disparagingly, the idea that the theorems constructed by mathematicians may be one version of the underlying nature of reality. He dismisses post-modernist ideas of the cultural relativism of maths (or of science, in general). In my admittedly extremely humble opinion the Wignerian unreasonable effectiveness of maths is just that - unreasonable. Is maths discovery, or invention?  Frenkel unequivocally calls it discovery. He describes the work mainly of white men (and a few Japanese), but neither acknowledges that fact, nor stops to consider the possible cultural biases that may introduce. 

Frenkel, as a Jew in Russia, had to fight a lot against the kind of prejudice seen, say, by 'lower' castes in India. And while he does not explicitly address politics in this book, his ideas clearly fall into the Universe of the Right. Maybe with good personal reason. 

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. By Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side

Agatha Christie

Harper Collins Publishers. First published 1962.

The large manor in Miss Marple's village is taken by a famous actress, her husband and her retinue. At a party given by her in aid of a local charity one of the guests is murdered. And Miss Marple solves the murder. The title comes from Tennyson's poem 'The Lady of Shalott', about a lady who is cursed to look at the outside world only by its reflection in a large mirror facing the window. Once, Sir Lancelot passes by, and she sees his image in the mirror. Unable to resist a glance at the original, she turns around. And, 'out flew the web and floated wide, the mirror crack'd from side to side, the curse is upon me, cried, the Lady of Shalott'. I remember this poem from school. In this book, it refers to the indescribable look of near-horror, as though the curse has come upon her, that suddenly comes on the actress's face while receiving some guests, one of whom is eventually murdered. 

I think I have now cracked the AC code. About halfway through the book, I could guess the murderer, though of course, the actual motive, and the modus operandi remain unclear till the end. Those are usually rather contrived in her books, anyway. After my initial guess, I could follow, and appreciate AC's technique of misdirection. Shoals of red herrings are drawn across the reader's path, and each one on the main list of characters is presented as the possible culprit. But to me, these complications only served to solidify my guess more and more, finally to have it shown to be correct.

The first couple of chapters of this book are delightful. Miss Marple is now an old lady, being assisted to live, and resenting it. She shows a wicked sense of humour, missing hitherto in AC's characterisations of her. She also shows a slight come-down from her upper-middle class British bulldog views, and ends up making friends with a proletarian couple. She also teases and is in turn teased, but gently, by the detective policemen who bring the facts of the case to her, and seek her help in solving the murder mystery.    

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Girl in the Spider's Web. By David Lagercrantz

The Girl in the Spider's Web

David Lagercrantz

Based on the characters created by Stieg Larsson

Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding

Maclehose Press. First published 2015

This book is fan fiction. Poor fan fiction, at that. There is very little original in it, except, perhaps, the lack of quality. We meet Michael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander for the fourth time, (after The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, and the two other books) as they try to rescue and look after an autistic savant boy called August, who helps Salander decrypt a file she has downloaded from the NSA server after hacking it. She uncovers a conspiracy by NSA officials and some Russian gangsters to steal industrial secrets and sell them. The story meanders back and forth between Salandar, Blomkvist, various crooks, the police, and the NSA. All characterizations are halfhearted and stereotyped (computer experts are slobs, autistic children are geniuses...), the conversations are boring, and the action sequences are tepid. Only the character of Lisbeth Salander (which Lagercrantz has degraded, but not completely) keeps the interest alive till the end. The first three books in the Millenium series were not great, but at least we had Lisbeth, and we had some great action.