“My heart was now beating faster than usual. No longer Evariste Galois, I am impersonal, at one with the eternal mind responsible for mathematics, impelled forward to discover the mystery at the center of the labyrinth. But just as the solution is within reach, I am distracted by the scent of chamomile.” (The French Mathematician, 1997)
Beside the flaw pointed above, the novel is quite unique in that it mixes the two distant concepts of mathematics and politics through the life of Evariste Galois. And similarly, the mixing of biography and fiction forms is also quite rare. For example, plenty of biographies have been written about eminent mathematicians, which elaborately account their mathematical accomplishments and their personal struggles. Indeed, barring individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, most mathematicians fall within the stereotype of living regimented, organized and aloof lives by normal standards. But Tom Petsinis employs the facts surrounding the colorful but brief life of Evariste Galois in sculpting out a novel that is one of a kind. And it is only a matter of time before The French Mathematician is adapted to the celluloid form. Indeed, the period in which the novel is set, the eccentricity of the characters, the political circumstances of the time, etc, make it a perfect material for cinema.
While one would think that a third person narrative would be appropriate for a biography of this kind, the first person view employed by the author is also understandable. For example, the mind of any teenager, especially one gifted with prodigious talent and arrogance is bound to be in a constant state of flux and contradiction. In this context, the first person narrative is the best option to capture these ambiguities, as the following passage shows:
“Over the past year dark feelings have been stirring within me, not only hatred of those around me, but a frustrated desire for something I cannot define, an ambition without a goal, a sense of leaving childhood and moving toward a distant, barely audible calling, which sometimes sounds like nothing more than a faint echo of my own voice, and other times a voice I have never heard before, calling compellingly in a language I do not fully understand. I know I am destined for something, though I do not know exactly what.” (The French Mathematician, 1997)
Also, by the time the book was first published in 1997, the stature of Galois and the implications of his theories have already established themselves in the annals of modern science. But these subsequent events cannot be accommodated into the narrative, for they were written in first person and set in early nineteenth century. If anything, during Galois’ time there was uncertainty as to the validity and significance of his theories. So the aura surrounding Galois that was earned posthumously cannot be fully articulated by the author. But Petsinis overcomes this challenge by stating Galois’ vision of politics and mathematics in the future. This is done in such a way that the growing legacy of Galois is contained within his express vision, which is neatly captured by the author in the novel. Even discounting for the factual digressions indulged by Petsinis, the final outcome is still satisfactory so as to classify the book a biography.
Finally, while Galois is obviously the hero of the novel, it doesn’t follow that the author has abandoned a critical treatment of his subject. Indeed, the vices as much as the virtues of the young hero are dwelled upon, showing that the young French mathematician is all too human, if not being ordinary in certain respects. Given that Galois’ contribution to mathematics has been so profound and that his creative life was nipped in the bud, one wonders how mathematics would have been transformed had he lived till old age. In this sense, the book manages to showcase both the heroic and the tragic aspects of the life of Evariste Galois. The political and creative heroism of the young genius might appear to be the focal point of the book but what is poignant are the glories that weren’t to be. The further theories that Galois could have developed, the inspirational political leader that he promised to be, etc are the thoughts with which the book ends.