When I was a student, math was a constant source of frustration for me. But years later, I accidentally came across the name of mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, “the father of fractals”, in connection with an art exhibit featuring fractal elements. This was the moment when the words of my former math teacher that “mathematics is a form of art” finally sunk in. And this was the starting point of my fascination with fractals and the persona of Mandelbrot.
That is why when I recently stumbled upon the book by Liz Ziemska Mandelbrot The Magnificent, (Tor) my interest was piqued. I became even more intrigued as I discovered that this novella was a rare literary breed – a pseudo-biography or a fictional memoir.
Mandelbrot was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1924. His father worked in a ladies’ hosiery store and his mother was a dental surgeon. They were not religious, even though his father came from a family of talmudic scholars. Young Benoit grew up in an atmosphere of strong academic tradition with an emphasis on science. His brilliant uncle, Szolem Mandelbrot introduced him to mathematics at a young age.
Before Mandelbrot, mathematicians believed that most of the patterns in nature were far too complex or irregular to be described mathematically. But Mandelbrot’s approach to mathematics was highly visual and intuitive, which allowed him to discover a formula to explain the beauty of the world around us.
The book is narrated by Benoit as Ziemska imagines him, and is mostly a fictitious account of his childhood years during the Second World War.
It opens, though, with him as an adult and a description of a delicious cauliflower dish his wife makes, the aroma of which takes the old mathematician back in time to his childhood memories.
By choosing this intriguing and creative beginning Ziemska demonstrates not only her wonderful writing style, but also her deep background knowledge of her narrator. Mandelbrot often used to start his lectures with an example of a cauliflower to explain his fractal theory (a small cauliflower floret looks almost identical to a full cauliflower head) .
From the first pages, the author gives us a hint that she will take true events from Mandelbrot’s life and skillfully interweave it with fiction to create a magical but still believable story.
In her first chapter “Warsaw” Ziemska not only recreates this first mathematical encounter between his Uncle Szolem and a six-year-old Benoit, but also shows us another surprising dimension of her story. This chapter and the rest of the novella are accompanied by actual formulas and geometrical renderings to illustrate various math concepts that are presented throughout the story.
So where I thought before that math and literature can’t be happily married, Ziemska proves me wrong.
As the story goes on, young Benoit continues to discover his genius and love for math. This becomes extremely challenging when, with the rise of Hitler, he, together with his family, has to flee Poland and emigrate to France in 1936.
Benoit’s apparent talent doesn’t make his family’s life easier. In Vichy France, Jews are considered pariahs who have to hide, and Benoit’s mother even suggests that he should “do well in his exams, but not too well” to draw as little attention as possible. However, it becomes an impossible task for a teenager who is eager to excel.
When the danger is literally knocking at their door, it’s up to Benoit to find a perfect way to hide his family using his creativity, Kabbalah and his burgeoning fractal theory.
Mandelbrot The Magnificent is a whimsical story of survival. It gives us a glimpse into the early life of one of the magnificent minds of the 20th century during one of the darkest chapters in human and Jewish history.
The novella may seem short, but once I started reading, it became richer and richer. By mixing just the right amount of fact, fiction and pure math, Ziemska magically managed to create the feel of a full-length novel that leaves a taste for more.