A Universe of Sufficient Size: a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

January 30, 2020 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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At the first Limmud-Oz I gave a presentation on Holocaust Novels: Fact from Fiction. It posed the possibility that some holocaust novels appear so real and some true stories seem to be pieces of fiction.

Many novels set centuries ago are often designate Historical Fiction and many libraries use such a designation.

In many senses, this book by Miriam Sved is historical fiction and the author confirms this in her own description of the book. That does not take away from the text. It is an Australian story even though it has its beginning in Budapest just as the Nazis have joined with Austria in the Anschluss of 1938.

It begins in Budapest, 1938. In a city park, five young Jewish mathematicians gather to share ideas and to trade proofs. While each is quite gifted one stands out and on the recommendation of another in the group is invited to Vienna after the Nazi take-over to present his thoughts and ideas to one of the leading mathematicians of the time. Part of the reason is the hope to be recommended for a scholarship/research position in the United States.

At the other end of the historical timeline is set in Sydney in 2007. It is just after the death of one of them and another who is an old woman and is now living with her daughter, Illy, and granddaughter. Suddenly, another member of the group who is by now an intentionally famous mathematician arrives on a university lecture tour to the local university. He is Pali Kalmar and is loosely based on the great mathematician Paul Erdos. It is some 70 years since Illy’s mother and Pali have seen each other

One morning not long after the death of Illy’s father she finds a curious notebook on her bedside table. Its pages are faded and it is written in Hungarian. It is a mix of personal stories and anecdotes as well as detailing mathematical concepts and ideas.

This notebook is in many ways the connection between two worlds and two time periods, one of relative comfort and one when chaos ruled the world.

The five protagonists, all Jews, can no longer attend university so instead, meet at a statue in the City Park known as Anonymous- perhaps in itself an illusion to what they are becoming. The anti-Jewish laws while not as rigorous as in Germany have been around for some years and one of the five is particularly affected for both his parents who are teachers have lost their jobs.

Miriam Sved

Illy has grown up in the great silence that many children of holocaust survivors have experienced. Her knowledge about her mother’s early life is lacking as she experienced the great silence for her mother did not wish to speak of it for it was too painful. On the other hand, her father is a cranky, dominating man who is better for he has never achieved the academic career he wanted. Eszter, Illy’s mother, is presented in the years of her marriage as submissive and appeasing.

The novel also has a side story of Illy’s two children, Zoe and Josh. Zoe who needs to tell her mother about her relationship and Josh who is another star mathematician and at one stage believes his grandfather maybe Pali. While it introduced a third generation into the account, personally I found it really did not add to the central story.

I have a memory of survivors telling me about how friends and neighbours who were considered friends turned on them once the Nazis arrived. There is a poignant scene when the five friends were attending a lecture. It had been assumed that the university was a safe place where such things would not occur. The scene where four of them {Pali was off chatting to the lecturer} were set upon by fellow students, in 1938 and thus before the arrival of the Nazis in Budapest, was chilling.

This book raises a question which I suspect was not the objective of the author. How many of us really have an idea about our own parents lives when they were in their late teens and twenties. At best there might be some photographs and the occasional story but unlike Illy we have no access to diaries. Perhaps the next generation with the plethora of social media might have a better idea. It is so often after the death of parents and their contemporaries that is the time when so many questions arise and there is no one to give an answer.

This book is not the easiest book I have read but definitely worth it.

Miriam SVED

Pan MacMillan 2019

320 pages

Review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor (Adjunct) in the School of Medicine (Sydney Campus) at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He has also served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum: The Holocaust and Australian Jewish History and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at UNSWMedicine.

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