The Mathematician’s Shiva
By Stuart Rojstaczer
The Mathematician’s Shiva is a novel that tells the story of the life and death of Rachela Karnokovitch – Jew, refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland, Gulag survivor, Soviet defector, American, genius. Her New York Times obituary describes her as “the greatest female mathematician of her generation.”
Narrated by her son, Sasha, the story unfolds over seven days in Madison, Wisconsin, where the Karnokovitch family found refuge and where Rachela taught at the university. It includes lengthy excursions – via Rachela’s memoirs – back to wartime Poland and to a penal colony on the shores of the Barents Sea, where little Rachela and her parents end up after fleeing the Nazis into Soviet territory.
In life, Rachela was a force of nature, who spoke with the “cadence of an oracle” and was “banned from teaching calculus … because she scared the hell out of freshmen.” No less formidable in death, there is a rumour that she has solved a problem – the Navier-Stokes equation – that has vexed generations of mathematicians.
News of Rachela’s passing goes viral and soon an army of “Slavic-accented mathematicians” descends on the Karnokovitch home. This coterie of acolytes, rivals and sycophants eats everything in sight, goes cross-country skiing in their underwear, assaults park rangers, and attempts to pry up the floorboards in search of Rachela’s elusive solution.
A charming and highly readable novel of Russian-Jewish life in America, The Mathematician’s Shiva also explores a number of themes that are critically important to an understanding of 20th century Russian history and of how Russians and others – especially Jews – have experienced that history.
“In Russia,” says Sasha at the beginning of the novel, “math is not just a means to an end. It’s a glorious art.” With its foundation in fact undistorted by ideology, mathematics is the antithesis of the moral and spiritual emptiness that characterized so much of Soviet discourse.
This has particular resonance for Jews. For millennia, our survival has been connected to our “portable culture” – our ability, wherever we find ourselves, to use our unbroken connection to Torah and to each other, and our tradition of scholarship, to recreate life, wholesale, as Jews. Mathematics is no less a form of portable culture. Rooted as it is in raw intellect, mathematics can, quite literally, be carried around entirely inside of our heads. When Ella Einstein was told that the Mount Wilson observatory telescope was being deployed in attempt to determine the shape of space-time, she supposedly sniffed, “My husband does that on the back of an old envelope.”
The full flowering of Rachela’s particular genius is, by her own account, directly related to her childhood experience. “I needed the deprivation of war to let my mind be idle enough to discover the world of mathematics,” she says, “to make me appreciate every little gift, every tiny increment – like a crumb of food – of understanding while solving a problem … this is what war gave me, a life of the mind that would sustain me almost always.”
As Jews, we know suffering is real. As Jews, we should avoid the temptation to transform it into an intellectual conceit. That said, Rachela’s insistence that the wartime Gulag made her a mathematician is a very Russian concept, so much so that it has become almost a cliché. “Suffering” said Dostoevsky in Notes From Underground, “is the sole origin of consciousness.” While suffering is not necessarily the crucible of genius, it may impart a clarity of perception that nurtures truly extraordinary, even visionary people – think Elie Wiesel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi.
Sharp-tongued, impatient, frighteningly intelligent and well read, Rachela nevertheless draws a whole lifetime’s worth of lost souls – fellow mathematicians, animals, defecting Soviet artists – into her orbit. Summing up his mother’s life, Sasha concludes that Rachela’s distinguishing characteristic was her dveykus, the Hasidic term for those who possess the spirit of God inside them. Like the old time tzaddikim, Rachela’s dveykus is manifested in her genius, attracting those “who feel blessed just to be around someone whose goodness and spirituality are always present.”
An affecting portrait of a truly remarkable person, The Mathematician’s Shiva is, in the end, a fascinating meditation on the nature, and the challenge, of genius.