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Fredrik Lång, Mitt liv som Pythagoras (My Life as Pythagoras)

Schildts förlag,  2005. ISBN: 9515015103

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2006:2

My Life as Pythagoras is an odd title; you can’t live another man’s life, surely? But Pythagoras’s slave lives for his master: “Besides, of the two of us, it is only I, Zalmoxis, who has a self. I wrote recently, or not so long ago, that Pythagoras experienced being himself on board a riverboat on the Nile. Not true. What he experienced was what I would have felt if I had been him – which is who I actually am. The Hellenes know no ‘I’. Neither does Pythagoras, even though he is a god. Is a god – or believes himself to be one. [...] To be an ‘I’ you must be a slave. A stateless slave. Or a poet, which is the same thing.” The paradox is just one clue to why this clever, learned and often witty book is so hard to get a grip on. A would-be novel, it is also by turns an easy-going account of classical Greece, a discourse on themes from social philosophy, a series of homespun musings on love and money and power and a cheerful piece of storytelling, based on the little known life of a mathematically-minded mystic, who might not have been a god, but was certainly a genius. The historical narrative is full of illuminating insights and sprinkled with wry humour. Young Pythagoras, son of Apollo, learns his earthly Father’s trade as coin-maker and, through his work, the principles of physics, chemistry and arithmetic. His skills help him survive travel (Babylon, Egypt), warfare and a shipwreck, but he despises their slave-like usefulness. Only pure thought, numerology, silence and abstinence are fitting for someone communing with the divine. With such a hero, the voluble Zalmoxis is a necessary device. Zalmoxis’s talk often explains the philosophy and politics, but – just in case – the author has provided thirtynine Endnotes, some several pages long. Many are factual, but others are speculative mini-essays, rife with more paradox: “Anyway, within these Endnotes, we are in the here-and-now, which is of course where we've been all the time. Being back in the time of Pythagoras is impossible. [But, in order to do it...] we must proceed in the reverse. And we must forget all we know.” Fredrik Lång has an impressive academic record in the natural sciences, mathematics, philosophy and history. My Life as Pythagoras, unlike his earlier novels, almost sinks with the sheer weight of the interesting things he has got to say. After a quiet writing year in 2006, his next project might achieve the ambitious synthesis he strives to create in Pythagoras….

Also by Fredrik Lång

  • Ryska kusinen (The Russian Cousin). Reviewed by Neil Smith in SBR 2004:1.

Other reviews by Anna Paterson

Other reviews in SBR 2006:2

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