Finding company in solitude
THIS WEEK’S WINNER
MANILA, Philippines - Amalia Airiz Casta, 19, is a graduate from the Lyceum of the Philippines University with a degree in AB Journalism. She was the literary editor of their school organ and the editor-in-chief of the school’s literary folio. The main triangulation of her everyday existence is books, chocolates, and good music. She blogs at cinderellaincombatboots.blogspot.com
In Plato’s The Symposium, it is said that humans originally consisted of four arms, four legs, and a two-faced head. Fearing their power, Zeus tore them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves. But what if they are destined never to meet? What if they are seeking the safe refuge of solitude instead of the missing piece that would complete them?
I usually don’t pick books about hackneyed tales of finding your soulmate or Prince Charming, so I’m grateful to Lady Luck or whoever is responsible for pre-programming this sweet serendipity: stumbling upon a copy of The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. The idea that some people are similar to prime numbers — lonely things, only divisible by themselves or by one — struck a chord with me, and I started pondering how two “primes” can be soulmates. Even in mathematics, prime numbers cannot end up next to each other.
One quick tidbit about me: I like math the same way I may like a five-inch nail being driven into my skull. I passed my math subjects (not a fluke, trust me) but I never got around to really liking them. It’s hard to do that when during classes the helium in my thought balloons are composed of notions like “I bet my bottom peso that no one in my future job will fire me if I can’t recite the first 20 digits of the value of pi.” I often thought of the equations as recipes for culinary wizardry or formulas for potions to torture our brains with (and it didn’t help that most of our high school math teachers resemble witches).
It’s amazing that a book with two things that I’m not particularly fond of ended up being one of the few works I loved unreservedly. It’s a literary gem that toyed cleverly with my brain and at the same time sent my heart trip-hammering with ache.
Without treading on the Mary Sue grounds, the characters are fleshed out in convincingly damaged portraits. Misfits, Mattia rejects the world and Alice feels rejected by it. Their broken natures magnetized each other and in my mind they formed the image of the “cleaved” humans from The Symposium. They can fill out each other’s incompleteness. But what prevents them from joining is that they are like “twin primes,” or prime numbers that are separated only by an even number: 11 and 13, 17 and 19, 41 and 43… close but not close enough to touch.
I’m no pariah by any means, but my common denominator with the characters is how they find reassurance in solitude. Their own versions of isolation always made them whole.
Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely. According to Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist from New York University, “There is something very liberating for people about being on their own.” Indeed, there is comfort in letting a shell of peace encase you and take you away from judging eyes, with nothing to hear while you’re inside it except for the echoes of your own heartbeats and thoughts. A steady diet of introspection done in peace is healthy. I understand that humans are social beings, but I also acknowledge the special kind of freedom that aloneness can bring. I’m sure that if I confide this concept to people I usually interact with, they’ll just look at me as if I just cracked the biggest joke they’ll never laugh at. Thoughts like that make me feel as if I’m stuck in the same boat as Mattia, especially in his childhood days.
As for Alice’s case, it’s all about fitting in. At one point or another, everyone wants to be a part of a circle — have a clique of friends that you can hang out with, laugh with, and even cry with. Alice is not a piece that fits in the jigsaw puzzle of her peers, and in trying so hard to squeeze herself in, she inscribes an indelible mark on herself that will forever remind her of her pathetic efforts to please others. I’m not the kind of person who tries to impress people by plastering my face with the mask of who they want me to be. I have my own set of quirks and insecurities, and like Alice, I want to fit in… except that I want to do it without sacrificing the real me.
I’m more fortunate than them because I have friends who, even if they sometimes make fun of me or simply cannot fathom my ruminations on certain things, still accept me for being oddball-ish. All that Mattia and Alice have is each other; the very forms of solitude that complete them ironically create a fissure in the middle of their relationship that both of them cannot cross. I bet Zeus will find it ridiculous that two halves have found each other in an ocean of billions of people, yet cannot produce the glue they need to become the very being that the Greek god fears.
The book has a patented tragedy; there is not much to say about the plot, but the chapters will leave you with a tingling feeling. The characters have suffered greatly apart so that you think they deserve a happy-ever-after. I remember trying to keep the tears at bay as I stayed up in the wee small hours of the morning to finish it, knowing that the characters would not be together because of one stupid decision. I remember the exact moment that elicited breaths from me slightly reminiscent of an asthma attack, when the characters made a stupid choice again and the remaining pages were not enough for them to give each other another chance. It’s… ineffable. With Giordano’s narration that is both cerebral and emotional, every word evokes a resonating blow. It goes through your chest and stays there, like a ghost haunting the chambers of your heart.
After finishing the book, I stayed awake, hugging it and willing the words to penetrate me more, as if by osmosis, because it’s the first time I deeply cherished something that broke my heart so badly. Let me reiterate that I’m not one of those girls who locate her Mr. Right with a compass of cheesiness and fairytales, but The Solitude of Prime Numbers found a chink in my hard heart’s armor, convincing me to open a door for a soulmate even if I didn’t believe in one before.
If I finally find my other half, I will not let us become prime numbers that never touch.