Translated by Christiana Hills
This debut novel by mathematician and Oulipo member Michèle Audin retraces the lives of French mathematicians over several generations through World Wars I and II. The narrative oscillates stylistically from chapter to chapter—at times a novel, fable, historical research, or a diary—locking and unlocking codes, culminating in a captivating, original reading experience.
One Hundred Twenty-One Days starts with a bang – a fairy tale introduction followed by an intriguing diary and newspaper articles. It makes the story wonderfully plotty as we follow Christian, an African boy that makes his way to Paris thanks to his mathematical ability.
From there the scope widens and the pace slows. Immediate accounts give way to lists, interview transcripts, and research materials, taking us further away from the story. What felt close and real in the first 50 pages fades away into historical analysis and hearsay. One World War turns into a second while the cast of characters (mostly mathematicians) grows and individual people become less memorable.
The Oulipo constraints, such as starting each chapter with the last words of the previous one, are fun and interesting. Some jokes are aimed at mathematicians but this language major never felt left out. Christiana Hills handily deals with numerous translation puzzles while maintaining different voices and registers for each section. But while the word candy kept my brain happy the diffuse plot kept me from falling in love.
Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.