Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
The impressive title, A Universe of Sufficient Size, promises themes that are far from trivial. The reader is not disappointed with this brilliant novel. It gives a fine portrait of genius in the character Pali Kalmar who is based on the mathematician Paul Erdos – a Hungarian.
Pali is unprepossessing in looks except for his arresting dark gaze. He lives for mathematics, eschewing romance and most routine pleasures. One of the other characters states that Pali is best described by Zeno’s paradox which maintains that one can halve a quantity, halve, halve, and so on, but never get to the absolute Pali.
Many would not be drawn to a book expounding the love of mathematics and discussions of high-level reasoning and theorems. It is an exclusive realm and the ordinary reader may get an inkling of the bewitching beauty of maths at this advanced stage with the glory of classical music, especially Bach. However, by weaving other subjects into this ‘Universe’, Miriam Sved grips the reader.
Traumas affecting Jewish people who were forced to escape Nazism, complexities of relationships, courageous steps some have to take to survive, are skilfully woven into the book.
There is a mystery too. Add to all this, a gradual awareness of the dimensions of one person’s life are not reduced to that of an ageing grandparent.
The novels switches from 1938 Hungary to 2007 Sydney. There are five young students, with their passion for mathematics, who gather in a park in Budapest when not at the university. They are full of enthusiasm for the subject and their future but the shadow of the Nazi menace already looms. One of the five is Pali. There are two other men and two girls – Illy and Eszter.
It is Illy who is the grandmother who escaped Hungary, lived briefly in New York, and is now in Australia in 2007.
Her grandson Josh, also a gifted mathematician, is nonetheless living a sharply different life. He is witty, self-centred, wedded to his device and rowing with his girlfriend. Even his money problems are no match for what the young people endured in 1938.
The mood of both eras is in contrast too. The five young students in Budapest have an air of serious optimism and excitement. Their enthusiasm persists although the future is threatening undreamt of horrors.
Josh, the central character in Sydney, is very different. He is at his grandfather’s wake. He views the scene with light-hearted flippancy, his mind on other concerns. He is amused by the amount of champagne his grandmother is drinking, but this is the thread which leads to unexpected developments in more ways than one.
A Universe of Sufficient Size is inspired by the Ramsay Theory which suggests that, given a universe of sufficient size, order and structure are guaranteed provided there are enough variables. This is an ambitious framework on which to base a novel.
Miriam Sved, in just her second novel, has made a beautifully written attempt. She takes us on a journey through the light and dark of relationships, unlocks an old mystery, and explores the power of unselfish devotion.
It has been a glorious surprise to be so moved and engaged by lives devoted to, and enhanced by, unexpectedly, mathematics.
A Universe of Sufficient Size
by Miriam Sved
ISBN 978 1743 5351 27