The Parrot's Theorem: A Novel

The Parrot's Theorem: A Novel

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Mr. Ruche, a Parisian bookseller, receives a bequest from a long lost friend in the Amazon of a vast library of math books, which propels him into a great exploration of the story of mathematics. Meanwhile Max, whose family lives with Mr. Ruche, takes in a voluble parrot who will discuss math with anyone. When Mr. Ruche learns of his friend's mysterious death in a Brazilian rainforest, he decides that with the parrot's help he will use these books to teach Max and his brother and sister the mysteries of Euclid's Elements, Pythagoras's Theorem and the countless other mathematical wonders. But soon it becomes clear that Mr. Ruche has inherited the library for reasons other than enlightenment, and before he knows it the household is racing to prevent the parrot and vital, new theorems from falling into the wrong hands.

An immediate bestseller when first published in France, The Parrot's Theorem charmingly combines a straightforward history of mathematics and a first-rate murder mystery.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312303020
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/04/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 587,747
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.79(d)

About the Author

Denis Guedj is Professor of the History of Science at Paris VIII University. He has spent many years devising courses and games to teach adults and children math. He is the author of Numbers: The Universal Language.

Read an Excerpt

The Parrot's Theorem

A Novel

By Denis Guedj, Frank Wynne

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 Denis Guedj
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5167-2


A Bird in the Hand

A curious parrot; a Euclidean family & two friends called Being and Nothingness

Max Liard set out over the hill to the flea market at Clignancourt, as he did every Saturday. He rummaged for a while on the stall where his sister had traded in the Nikes that Perrette, their mother, had given her, and then wandered into a huge warehouse that sold army surplus. As he was ferreting about in a pile of clothes, he saw two guys at the back of the shop who seemed to be arguing. It looked as if they were fighting. None of his business, really. But then he saw that the two men were trying to catch a parrot.

The parrot put up a good fight. The shorter of the two guys caught it by one wing, but it wheeled round and bit hard into his finger, drawing blood. Though he heard nothing – Max was deaf – he saw the guy scream. The bigger man lashed out, hitting the parrot squarely between the eyes. Max moved a little closer. Though he knew it was impossible, he thought he heard the parrot shouting 'Help!' One of the guys took out a muzzle and tried to put it over the parrot's head. Max decided that this was his business after all, and ran towards them.

* * *

The rue Ravignan is short and steep, running from the fountain at the Place Émile-Goudeau, where the Bateau-Lavoir – Montmartre's famous studio of painters – still stands, to the junction of the rue des Abbesses and the rue d'Orchampt. Right in the middle is a bookshop called A Thousand and One Pages, owned by an old man named Mr Ruche. It was more spacious than the other shops on the street, and that's how Mr Ruche liked it. He didn't like cramped spaces. Nothing made him angrier than people who jammed books tightly together on shelves. Books shouldn't be packed together like people crammed into the métro in the rush hour, but neither did he like to see them lolling about, with gaps you could drive a taxi through. One of Mr Ruche's guiding principles was that books needed room to breathe, a lesson he had taught Perrette, the woman who worked with him. Since the accident that had left Mr Ruche in a wheelchair, Perrette had been in sole charge of the bookshop. She was there from dawn to dusk, dealing with customers, orders, deliveries, returns and accounts. She did everything and she did an excellent job.

This morning the stench of motor oil on the rue Ravignan was so strong that Perrette had to hold her breath as she walked through the old garage that was Mr Ruche's bedroom. She pushed aside the curtains and handed Mr Ruche a letter. From the large Brazilian stamp in the corner and postmark, Perrette knew it had been posted two weeks earlier, in Manaus. Mr Ruche didn't know anyone in Brazil, let alone in Manaus.

Monsieur Pierre Ruche
1001 Pages
Rue Ravignan

It was certainly addressed to him, but there was no street number and the name of the shop was strange: '1001' instead of 'A Thousand and One'.

Dear πR

From the way I've spelled your name, you should be able to guess who I am. Right first time. It's me, Elgar – get your breath back. I know – we haven't seen each other for half a century. I've counted.

The last time I saw you was the day we escaped, do you remember? It was 1941. You told me you were leaving to fight a war you had nothing to do with starting. I wanted to get out too; to get away from Europe and from a war that I thought had gone on too long. And I did. After we left each other, I took a boat to the Amazon rainforest. I've been living here ever since. I live near Manaus. I'm sure you've heard of it – it used to be the rubber capital of the world.

Why write now, after all this time? Because I've sent you some books. Why you? Because you were my best friend in the whole world, and anyway you're the only bookseller I know. I'm sending you my library: all of my books – almost a ton of books about maths.

All the classics are there. I suppose you think it's strange that I refer to maths as if it were literature, but I guarantee that there are better stories in my books than in the best novels. Stories of mathematicians like 'Umar al-Khayyam or Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the great Italian Niccolò Fontana, known as Tartaglia, and the French mathematician Pierre Fermat. And those are just a few off the top of my head. You might not agree with me. I know lots of people think that knowledge is just a strange collection of facts tied up with an education. But, if you ever decide to read one of the books, do me one favour: before you start, ask yourself, 'What story is it trying to tell?' If you do, I'm sure that you'll see the world of maths you thought was difficult and grey in a different light. It might even make a confirmed reader of novels like you happy.

In the crates I've sent, I think you'll find the world's best collection of books about mathematics. Everything that should be there is there. It's certainly the most complete private collection on the subject ever made.

How did I come by it? A bookseller like you will wonder how much it cost me. Not just in money, but in time and energy. I can tell you, it cost a fortune. There are first editions in there, some more than five hundred years old, which took me years to track down. How could I afford them? I think I should draw a veil over that. It hasn't always been by hard work and honest means, but I can promise that not one has blood on it – though a few might be stained with a drop of alcohol, or a difficult compromise.

The books that I have collected were for me alone. Every night, I'd choose one to spend the night with; and they've been wonderful nights, torrid, humid equatorial nights. Nights every bit as important to me as when we were sowing our wild oats long ago in the hotels around the old Sorbonne. But I'm getting sidetracked.

One last thing. Unless you've changed beyond all recognition, I'm certain of two things. Knowing how little money motivates you, I'm sure you will never sell these books. And knowing how little maths interests you, I imagine you will never read one of these books. Consequently, I feel confident that they will come to no harm in your care.

Love, Your friend, Elgar

This was a deliberate taunt, which proved to Mr Ruche that Elgar Grosrouvre hadn't changed one bit. Mr Ruche vowed that this time he would get one over on his old friend: he would read the books, and he would sell them. (This, of course, is precisely what Elgar intended. For his plan to work, Mr Ruche had to read the books first, because Elgar knew that once he had, he wouldn't be able to part with them.)

The Amazon! Why on earth had Elgar gone to the Amazon, and what was he doing in Manaus? Mr Ruche was so engrossed in thought that he didn't even notice the postscript on the other side:

PS The packages I had made up have all come apart. I've had to repack the books higgledy-piggledy into packing crates. You'll have to sort them out however you see fit, πR. It's not my problem any more!

PPS I may come and pay you a visit. Since we're not getting any younger, it would have to be quite soon. Will you recognize me? My hair is grey now and my face is fat – my feet are red as lobsters from the heat. I think I've turned into an old wizard.

The bookshop and the garage room took up the ground floor of a two-storey building that ran up the steep escarpment of the street. A narrow hallway between them led to a small courtyard. On the first floor was a flat where Perrette lived with her children. A galley kitchen ran along one wall of the living room; another wall was dominated by a massive chimney breast. The windows on the first floor opened onto a long balcony from which a narrow staircase ran down to a courtyard where an ancient bay tree stood. On the west wall was a fountain with a broken tap that dripped continually into an oriental basin. There were two artist's studios, now empty. In all, the place had a Moroccan feel to it.

Perrette's room had once belonged to Mr Ruche. Max, her youngest son, had a room sandwiched between the narrow toilet and the large bathroom. The attic had been converted and was divided into identical rooms for the twins, Jonathan and Lea. The rooms were bright, lit by large skylights in the sloping tiled roof, and at night gave a beautiful view of the city. Up in their eyrie Jonathan and Lea were like astronauts, looking out onto the sky, the clouds, the stars. The two cheap plastic skylights connected them to the infinity of space.

In the courtyard was the lift, which Mr Ruche had had installed after the accident. He got the idea from the barrel lifts that were to be found in every café in Paris. Hidden under a trapdoor behind the bar, they were used for lowering barrels of beer into the cellar. On the rue de Ravignan, they had no need to lift barrels. This lift was to take Mr Ruche from the courtyard up to the first-floor balcony. All he had to do was manoeuvre his wheelchair onto the platform, apply the brakes and push the button. It made for a strange sight – an old man in a wheelchair, rising into the air, on a lift shaded by a multicoloured umbrella!

Mr Ruche slept on the ground floor in the garage he had had converted into a bedroom. He couldn't use his car any more – and it would have reminded him of when he used to take long drives along the country roads. Being at ground level made it much easier for him to take his daily constitutional – something he couldn't live without. In the summer he could sometimes smell motor-oil from the floor, and it brought back memories.

He had furnished the room extravagantly with a four-poster bed and yards and yards of purple velvet draped on every wall. Mr Ruche said it was 'a king's bedroom for a pauper'. In the corner of the room was a dresser filled with shoes – little worn since the accident – and on it was a sign:

It is impossible to understand the science of shoes
until one understands what science is
(Plato, Theaetetus).

For some time now, Mr Ruche had lived quietly, expecting little out of life, happy to drift through a quiet retirement. Now, suddenly, a letter from halfway round the world looked set to change all that.

He remembered the first time he had met Elgar Grosrouvre. They were in their first year at the Sorbonne: Mr Ruche was reading philosophy; Grosrouvre, maths. While there, both began to write. Ruche published a much-admired essay on being; Grosrouvre wrote a highly acclaimed thesis on the number zero. They were inseparable – other students jokingly called them 'Being and Nothingness'. When Sartre published his essay some years later, Mr Ruche suspected he had stolen the name, but he couldn't prove it.

Mr Ruche lifted himself from the bed to his wheelchair and set off on his daily constitutional. What could Grosrouvre possibly want? Perhaps his old friend was trying to rattle him, to make sure he didn't get too comfortable in his old age. Was this a present or a time bomb?

When he got back home, he phoned the carpenter on the rue des Trois-Frères and began to plan the conversion of one of the empty studios into a library to house Grosrouvre's books, if they ever arrived. He wasn't sure that they would, but when Grosrouvre said he would do something, he generally did. A ton of books could arrive any day. Even if they didn't arrive, he could use the converted studio as a stockroom.

* * *

His nose scratched, his ear battered, his left hand bruised and his trousers torn, Max pushed open the door to the living room. At eleven years old, Max knew a bargain when he saw one and always came back from the market with something strange and valuable. This time, it had feathers and it stank. The bedraggled parrot was perched on Max's good hand. He set the bird down on the back of a chair, near the coffee table where his brother and sister, Jonathan and Lea, were finishing their breakfast. They stared at the bird.

The parrot stood just over a foot tall, rocking on its feet. Its green feathers were coated in a layer of dust through which it was just possible to make out that the tips of its wings were bright red. Its most striking feature was the blue feathers on its forehead, though there was a nasty cut. The bird could barely keep open its great dark eyes.

The first thing to do was wash the bird. The parrot seemed indifferent and let Max clean its feathers and feet, but when he tried to clean its beak the parrot's eyes lit up angrily for a brief moment. Though the bird looked as if it might topple over from exhaustion, it summoned up the energy to fly a short distance, landing on the cornice above the chimney breast. There it fell asleep, its head back and buried in its feathers.

No one noticed Perrette come in. She had just come back from the hairdresser, where she'd had her hair permed. She was beautiful but clearly didn't think her looks important. Her hair was short and curly, and she wore little make-up. She was clearly not in a good mood. 'This place smells of cat's piss!' she said.

'A parrot can't possibly smell of cat's piss,' corrected Jonathan, 'though it does stink!'

'I suppose,' said Lea, 'it could smell of parrot's piss.'

'Parrot? What parrot?'

Perrette looked around, and the twins pointed to the parrot perched on the cornice.

'Get that thing out of here!'

'But, Mum,' said Max, 'he's asleep!'

'Maybe we could wait till he wakes up', said Lea, though she wasn't keen on keeping the parrot.

'This place is bad enough already what with a pair of delinquent twins, a deaf son and a cripple. The last thing we need is a parrot.'

She was so angry that she hadn't heard the squeaking of the wheelchair behind her. She blushed. 'I'm sorry, Mr Ruche' she said, eventually.

'Nothing to be sorry about. It sounded quite an accurate description of the household.' Mr Ruche had noticed that Perrette had been on edge for several days now.

'I like your new hairstyle', he said, making little circles with his finger.

She looked at him, mystified. 'What?' She ran her fingers through her hair. 'Oh, of course. I think they overdid the curls, though.'

'Mother, I think I should explain,' said Jonathan, and he told his mother the story of how the parrot came to be there. When Jonathan told her about the fight, she wheeled round. She hadn't noticed the scratches on Max's face, or the bruising. She went over to look at him. It didn't look too serious.

'What do you think about all this, Mr Ruche?'

'I don't think he'll have any scars.'

'Not Max, about the parrot?'

'I think the parrot may well have a scar.'

'No, I meant should we keep him, or ...'

'Oh, I think if we throw him out on the street after all he's been through it would be a clear case of parrot-abuse.'

They all laughed. Except Max. He looked at his mother for a minute and then said, calmly, 'You wouldn't really refuse a parrot in distress, would you, Mum?'

'Does it talk?'

'Not a word ... at least not since he's been here', Max assured her.

'Well, I suppose we can grant him a temporary visa.'

* * *

Stretched out on their beds, each under their own skylight, Jonathan and Lea talked to each other through the half-open door between their rooms.

'Why would two men – "big guys" according to Max – want to put a muzzle on a parrot?' asked Jonathan.

'To stop it from talking, I expect', Lea answered.

'You think it was talking rather than biting?'

* * *

Between them, the twins were thirty-three years old and ten foot six. Jonathan was the elder, Lea the younger (by two and a half minutes). Everyone called them Jon-and-Lea. She always seemed to be trying to catch up on those two and a half minutes. She wanted to be first in everything, and most of the time she was. Jonathan seemed happy just to have been the first-born. They were as alike and as different as it was possible to be. It was as if they were the same person in different wrappers. But their eyes were the same – pale blue, like faded denim.

Lea was already a young woman. She wore no make-up, but dyed her cropped hair a different colour every week. Perrette told her that the bleach would ruin her hair, but she took no notice. She always wore a T-shirt and jeans with trainers or a pair of Doc Martens. Lea was lithe like a jungle creeper and thin as a rake – Euclid would have said she had 'length but no breadth'.

Jonathan had long, curly hair. He wore baggy clothes and a gold stud in his right ear. He radiated health and never seemed to feel the cold. He'd had acne as a boy, but now he had just a single spot on the tip of his chin. Jonathan scratched it sometimes when he was upset. He had beautiful hands. He wasn't fat, but stocky – Euclid would have said he had 'both length and breadth'.


Excerpted from The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj, Frank Wynne. Copyright © 2000 Denis Guedj. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. A Bird in the Hand,
2. Seen and Not Seen,
3. The Glass Pyramid,
4. The Rainforest Library,
5. The Three Ages of Maths,
6. Friends and Enemies,
7. The Numbers Game,
8. Just a Fraction,
9. Night Boat to Alexandria,
10. One Risotto and a Chicken Korma,
11. Problems, Problems, Problems,
12. The Great Glass Elevator,
13. The story of Ø,
14. The Fifth Postulate,
15. Secrets and Lies,
16. Less is More,
17. Fame!,
18. Between the Infinite and the Void,
19. A Narrow Margin,
20. A Handful of Feathers,
21. The Proof of the Pudding,
22. In Mathematics, Nothing is Impossible,
23. The Third Man,
24. Less is More,
25. Clear Blue Sky,
26. Stepping Stones,
The conference of the birds,
Cast of characters,

Reading Group Guide

Mr. Ruche, a Parisian bookseller, receives a bequest from a long lost friend in the Amazon of a vast library of math books, which propels him into a great exploration of the story of mathematics. Meanwhile Max, whose family lives with Mr. Ruche, takes in a voluble parrot who will discuss math with anyone. When Mr. Ruche learns of his friend's mysterious death in a Brazilian rainforest, he decides that with the parrot's help he will use these books to teach Max and his brother and sister the mysteries of Euclid's Elements, Pythagoras's Theorem and the countless other mathematical wonders. But soon it becomes clear that Mr. Ruche has inherited the library for reasons other than enlightenment, and before he knows it the household is racing to prevent the parrot and vital, new theorems from falling into the wrong hands.

An immediate bestseller when first published in France, The Parrot's Theorem charmingly combines a straightforward history of mathematics and a first-rate murder mystery.

1. What do you think of The Parrot's Theorem in relation to the work of Jorges Luis Borges and Umberto Eco? Is the emphasis on math rather than "the word" a fundamental difference between the works, or not?

2. What do you think of The Parrot's Theorem in relation to Flatland or Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which also use fictional tales, in whole or in part, to illustrate mathematical ideas? Did The Parrot's Theorem help you to understand math any better? Did it make you more interested in math?

3. How does The Parrot's Theorem compare to Sophie's World, which teaches philosophy through a novel? Is one more effective than the other, and why?

4. Mr. Ruche remained in Paris, Grosrouvre went to Brazil, Don Ottavio loves his native Syracuse, and the parrot, according to Aristotle, hails from India (p141). Mr. Ruche divides the Rainforest Library by region as well as time. What role does geography play in The Parrot's Theorem?

5. What do you think about Perette's revelation to her children early in the book about their origins? What significance does it have to the rest of the story?

6. Where you surprised by the confluence of math, religion, poetry, politics, and philosophy by historical characters in The Parrot's Theorem?

7. What historical characters in The Parrot's Theorem did you find most interesting/admirable/villainous?

8. Opposites and contrasts run throughout The Parrot's Theorem: Being and Nothingness, the secretive Pythagoreans v. the open Library of Alexandria; the free city of Athens v. the hierarchical governments everywhere else; Jon-and-Lea, the "identical-but-not-identical twins" (p13). What other contrasts can you think of? What significance do all these contrasts have? How do mathematical proofs fit in amongst all these contrasts? What do you make of the following passage from The Parrot's Theorem (p167): "This was the most important function of mathematics, he [Mr. Ruche] decided, to state precisely in which cases, under what conditions and subject to which hypotheses a statement is true. Grosrouvre's index card had reminded Mr. Ruche how valuable mathematics could be as a reminder of the dangers of absolutism."

9. Do you think Don Ottavio is right about Grosrouvre's motivations for keeping his theorems secret? Why or why not?

10. Do you think Grosrouvre was murdered, committed suicide, or died by accident?

11. Do you think Grosrouvre succeeding in his proofs, or did he make a mistake?

12. What did you think of the epilogue, in which Sidney/Mamaguena explained Grosrouvre's proofs to the conference of birds?

13. What do you think of Mr. Ruche's growing bond with Perrette's family, especially with Max? What do you think about Don Ottavio's offer to provide Max with an inheritance?

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The Parrot's Theorem: A Novel 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
shushokan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An attempt to tell the history of mathematics from the Greeks to the present day in the guise of a novel...and not a very good novel at that. The mathematics is at times misunderstood and at times flawed. There are misquoted formulae and bizarre statements, "all new mathematics is just sets." There are strange non-sequiters, one of the central characters who is confined to a wheelchair walks across the room to put the kettle on. The book is translated from French but the translator has attempted to give it an "English" air by making the characters perform in an English manner (drink tea on a regular basis etc.) and speak with a cockney accent while still living in Paris. All distinctly odd! There are better books on the history of maths and better novels.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up at the library just to see what it was about. The title sure was interesting enough and from the jacket it sounded intriguing. In the beginning I was hooked, but after that the novel seemed to drag on about the 'maths.' Reading these sections is not a good idea if you are half asleep. However, by the end of the novel, the plot picked up a bit and the closing was quite interesting. (You might remark 'why didn't I think of that?!') This is a good read if you have an interest in math. If math bores you, do not read this book because Pythagorus' theorems along with countless others will put you asleep.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book can be judged in several lights. As far as a novel goes it is not a high scorer, the plot is unrealistic/amateurish at times . But where he makes up for it is in making mathematical history very interesting. While I read it backpacking Greece I had two authors in mind that he fell between in style : Bill Bryson and John McPhee. It