Before you start reading this novel, it is important to know that Michèle Audin is a mathematician at IRMA in Strasbourg, and that she is a member of Oulipo, a movement of French writers and mathematicians. Their members self-impose some constraint when producing a literary work. A well known example is Georges Perec who wrote La disparition (1969), a book in which the letter e does not appear. In view of the content of this book, it is also not completely irrelevant to know that Michèle Audin's father Maurice was an activist and during the battle of Algeria he was tortured and killed in 1959 by the French military. Michèle's novel Une vie brève (2013) tells the story of her father. Since then she has become more a novelist than a mathematician. Two more books (in French) appeared in 2016 Mademoiselle Haas and La formule de Stokes. This One hundred and twenty-one days originally written in French as Cent vingt et un jours in 2014 is now finally available in English.
Suppose you want to write a biography of a collaborator in the second WW, how would you start? You probably will start collecting data, i.e., newspaper clippings of that period, diaries of people who knew him, pictures, military and medical reports, and you would interview survivors. That is exactly what Audin does, except her characters are fictitious. So she `invents' this material in different chapters: a collection of newspaper clippings, diary fragments from a nurse, a medical report from a psychiatrist, a description of photographs, etc. So every chapter has a different style, which is for this book Audin's oulipian constraint.
When you as a reader go through these chapters of raw material, you tie all this info together, and you automatically construct the story in your head. In fact, there is no need for Audin to tell the story anymore. Constrained by the material provided you already made your own virtual oulipian novel. The different chapters describe periods in chronological order from before the first war till 2013. So that is easy. The only effort required from the reader is to keep track of the different characters and how they are interrelated.
Some parallel with mathematics is striking. To derive a new result, first one has to collect what is already known, define the main players needed, show how they are related, derive their properties and prove a set of auxiliary results. All this within the constraints of mathematical and logical rules. When all the preliminary matherial is prepared, one is ready to write the paper that contains the main theorems. But even if you do not write the paper, when you show the raw material to a colleague mathematician, she can already dream what the finite result would be like.
Back to the novel. The first chapter is in the form of a fairy tale and starts with the sentence "Once upon a time, in a remote region of a faraway land, there lived a little boy". That boy is mathematically gifted and sent to France to study. His name is Christian Mortsauf (or something similar because Audin uses many different variants). Chapter 2 is taken from a diary of a nurse Marguerite Janvier in a war hospital in the first world war. She has to take care of Christian who is shot in the face and mutilated beyond recognition so that he has to wear a black leather mask for the rest of his life. (Has he become evil like Darth Vader?) Marguerite later becomes Mortsauf's wife. Another patient with a serious head injury at the same hospital is Robert Gorenstein. In the next chapter we read newspaper clippings from the post war period where we learn that Gorenstein in a fit of insanity murders his family. Put away in an asylum, he peacefully can continue his mathematical work.
Next is a report in which Pierre Meyer is interviewed about his time in Strasbourg as a mathematics student, in particular about his brilliant classmate André Silberberg who can solve in 1939 an important mathematical problem posed by Gorenstein. His result is mailed to Paris, and presented to the Académie by Mortsauf. Silberberg is a Jew and an activist protesting against the antisemitic atmosphere in those days. He collides with Heinrich Kürtz, a Nazi mathematician. In the next chapter we learn from Kürtz's journal that he is a friend of Mortsauf, who has become a collaborator. A chapter describing pictures brings the reader through the second world war, but the book culminates in the chapter with the title 'One hundred and twenty-one days'. This refers to the 121 days that span the period from 23 February till 24 June 1943. These dates pinpoint the day that Mireille Duvivier (Gorenstein's niece) first meets André Silberberg and the day that he was arrested and sent to Germany. They had a 121-day love affair as we learn in flash-backs while she starts looking for news from André after Paris was liberated and the war gradually comes to an end. Eventually she is informed by an eyewitness that André did not survive the Auschwitz death march and died in Mariahilf.
In the rest of the book, 'the historian' who is collecting all these data is entering. First comes a chapter with 'The Numbers'. This is just a long list of numbers, some mathematical, some just get their meaning because of the collected data. Euler's constant, pi, Gorenstein's constant, the smallest imaginary part of the zeta function, 28 is a perfect number, but also 7 kilometers, the distance from Monowitz to the main camp of Auschwitz, 67 kilometers, the length of the Auschwitz death march, 31, the age that Silberberg died in Mariahilf, 1926 the year that Vito Volterra invented predator-prey systems,... Of course also the 121 days of happiness of André and Mireille. Why 121 days? Is it because it is the sum of three primes and three isolated mathematiciens (Mortsauf, Gorenstein, Silberberg) form the spine of the book? Perhaps because 121 days of happiness surpass 120 days of Sodom? Numbers are just cold naked data, but this list also sends shivers down your spine. Numbers can be emotionally loaded.
In the next chapter 'the historian' goes through the inventory of what he has collected in the period 2006-2010 and his own notes. Finally he gives us a guided tour through Paris in 2013 from the cemetery of Montmartre where Pierre Meyer is just buried and he ends on the Place colonel Rol-Taguy. All the street names have their own history to tell. For example colonel Rol-Tanguy and general Leclerc accepted the surrender of the German troops when Paris was liberated in 1944. This chapter ends by repeating the first sentence of the book: "Once upon a time...". In fact after all this material has been collected this is where the historian should start writing the biography. However he does not get permission from the heirs to publish letters by Mortsauf. Hence all the material is available, but it remains unused. This history will not be written.
In a last unnumbered 'Superenumeracy' chapter, it is Audin who, as a meta-historian/author, assures that all the characters are fictitious and any resemblance with existing persons is purely coincidental, but she gives a long list of books that were inspirational and a list of all the geographic locations that were used. This nicely bridges to the extensive index with all the names of real and fictitious persons that were mentioned in the book.
With this novel we see the making of history. We read about the people who made or lived through the events. That leaves traces in the sources like newspapers, diaries, letters, etc, which is the raw material that historians, so many years later, have to use. But they will never be able to look inside the heads of the protagonists, data can be incomplete, unreliable, or manipulated, some histories are never written. There is the well documented war but there are also the people involved that may be brutally transformed from fairy-tale child into collaborator, from scientist into mass murderer, from activist into corpse. Many of these facts are completely irrelevant for history books and yet they all tell their own tragic story. Aren't these people's lives and emotions also part of history?
Several of the main characters of the book are mathematicians. I do not think that is really essential and probably only so because this is the world that Audin knows best. Except for the numbers, and perhaps some history, there is not much said about real mathematics either. Unless it is the fact that we are told that numbers and mathematics, (which in principle are devoid of emotions) may have a deep and tragic load when we associate them with events that we or other people have to live through. Murders and war victims are reported in numbers but numbers can also cause killing. At some point the reader is asked to compute the cost of keeping an insane person in an asylum. Depending on who does the computation, the result can make the difference between life and death.
This is an unconventional novel that has many layers and makes you think about love, history, war, racism, rebellion, caring, and many other things but most of all about telling a story. Highly recommended.