Michael Wildenhain has written a novel about mathematics and failure. "The Invention of Zero" asks about a fulfilled life.
One of the novel’s settings: The Gorges du Verdon gorge in southern France Photo: imago
You can find this book exciting without being a mathematician. The zero that is invented in Michael Wildenhain’s novel of the same name is also a zero hour, a new beginning, almost a rebirth, because it leads through the Gorges du Verdon, a gorge at the end of which the sea and the light await.
At least that’s how Susanne Melforsch imagines it. With calculating precision, the 47-year-old stages an encounter with Martin Godeler, a mathematician several years her senior, with whom she had already fallen in love as a high school graduate. After a failed marriage, she seeks her new beginning with, of all people, the man who, after a first affair, no longer paid any attention to her. "I am," she thinks at one point, "an insect that staggers or dances on delicate threads. And I never get to see my lord and master."
Godeler, too, has failed. Once celebrated as a young star of mathematics, he now vegetates in Stuttgart’s bean district, keeping his head above water by tutoring high school graduates. More than two decades have passed since his affair with Susanne Melforsch. Godeler also has a failed marriage behind him; his wife left him when he tried to return to her after an escapade with "Lu," an unusual mathematician.
Even his daughter has broken away from him. When Susanne Melforsch sees Godeler’s apartment, she imagines herself in a vault "whose ornaments: stalactites, stalagmites, formed in years, smell bad."
Michael Wildenhain: "The Invention of Zero." Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2020, 303 pages, 22 euros.
This is the main thread of the plot, in which there are, of course, countless subplots. False leads are constantly being laid in this novel, because it is about nothing less than an investigation against Martin Godeler for the murder of Susanne Melforsch, even though there is no body. The only clues are her belongings, which are found in a hotel in the French departement of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, where she had spent a few days with Godeler. After Godeler left and the hotel owner found the belongings, he called in the police.
A left-wing radical mathematician
Rarely has Michael Wildenhain, born in Berlin in 1958, drawn his readers into such a confusing game. "Does a person’s life obey the laws of a mathematical proof?" reads the blurb. But what does zero mean in such an equation? Is it a symbol for a loser? Is Wildenhain writing the portrait of a failure who, like Susanne Melforsch, wants to have it again in the end?
The investigating prosecutor feels the same as Susanne Melforsch in this criminalistic confusion. He staggers and dances on the threads of the investigation and tries to keep them in hand at the same time. The material he collected and leaves behind at the end after his surprising disappearance consists mainly of the interrogation protocols with Godeler, which he arranges in such a way that they become a story whose individual pieces only gradually puzzle together to form a coherent plot.
This puzzle also includes Lu, the punky, left-wing mathematician for whom Godeler left his family. But Lu isn’t all about Martin and mathematics. When she and her comrades fail to blow up the Victory Column in Berlin, he helps her escape to France. She too, underground, must start a new life. But Lu’s function in the novel is not a political one, but a mathematical one: she is the conclusion of an equation in which, it turns out, the prosecutor is also involved.
A new beginning for all
With "The Invention of Zero," Wildenhain, whose novel "The Cold Skin of the City" was a literary homage to the West Berlin squatter movement, advances his metamorphosis from a superficially political writer to an author who this time poses the question of a "fulfilled life" with mathematical meticulousness.
For "zero hour" not only means a new beginning for those who, like Godeler, have been thrown out of orbit, it also stands for the beginning of human life, for procreation and birth. Susanne Melforsch wants a child from Godeler as proof of the new beginning. Godeler, however, remembers how he lost not only his wife but also his daughter after his affair with Lu. "Dad, I’d rather go back to Mom," she told him after a vacation spent as a couple.
Thus, "real life" is the real subject of Wildenhain’s story of hiding and crime. Living in a marriage and fathering children is not enough for Godeler. Godeler wants to be like Odysseus, an initially inconspicuous person who can show his fellow men the way through his speech.
Perhaps this is a bit too much in the end.