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Chaos theory
Peter Stephan Jungk's Tigor
By Peter Stephan Jungk. Translated by Michael Hofmann. Other Press, 232 pages, $19.

At the beginning of Tigor, the title character, a mathematician, is emerging from a self-imposed exile from the civilized world. Having spent his brilliant career developing a theory called the Snowflake Constant, which posits that every 96 seconds a same-shaped hexagonal snowflake will appear in an area of maximally 10 square centimeters (provided, of course, that itís snowing), heís had his world view shattered at a mathematics conference in Trieste, having become overwhelmed by the growing hegemony of chaos theory. (The book is set in a vague present time.) Tigor had striven mightily, absurdly, to make the universe orderly, and heís punctured by the new trend that holds, "Modern mathematics is much closer to such things as Dadaism and Cubism, atonal music, and the writings of Franz Kafka, which, thank God, I have never read."

Unmoored, Tigor flees the Trieste conference and spends several days in the wilderness, gnawing on plants and clawing at the earth. After heís pulled himself together, somewhat, we find him genially if compulsively addressing strangers in a café in Italy before drifting off to Paris to stay with a beloved uncle, who dispenses dubious advice in his long monologues. ("Thereís no cause for you to despair. All that counts is determination, stamina, if you want to make your way in life. Admittedly, having a sunny disposition helps . . . ") In Paris, he pursues a childhood dream of becoming a rigger in a theater (someone who helps move the scenery via pulleys and cables) until he has a heart attack and goes into a coma during which he has a vision of Mount Ararat, a place he knows nothing about. Encouraged by his doctor, he goes to Romania, via Russia, and hooks up with a group of nationalistic mystics who want him to go in search of Noahís ark. On his quest, he meets his fate, which has something to do with snowflakes and things that arenít constant.

Author Jungk was born in Los Angeles and "raised in several European cities"; having studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute, he now lives in Paris, where he writes his books in German. The translation of Tigor has been left to the frequently lauded Michael Hofmann, whose renderings of Joseph Rothís works into English have done much to resurrect that writerís reputation. The English here seems a little remote from its source, as though paraphrased, but then that may be true of the original given the unlikeliness of every event and the way characters rarely speak in a realistic manner. The novelís one black character is a favored and exceptionally bright math student of Tigorís who spatters his dialogue with the MF word and whose first utterance upon hearing that Tigor is still alive is "I donít believe this ó I thought you was dead!" followed by "I gotta chill, Jesus, Tigerman!" The Armenians, on the other hand, are presented with much genuine drollery, beginning with Tigorís host Johann Wolfgang Oganessian, who persuades the always reluctant math wiz to dine at his house with the off-center English (actually off-center German, here translated) blandishment that "My wife has been cooking for you for past several days." (Earlier he says, "Forgive me for availing myself of the German language, I know no other strange language.")

So many eccentric characters and so many event-filled asides make this short novel seem crowded and the air inside a little stuffy. Tigorís fate isnít something youíre apt to care about, and the last-minute attempt at poignancy hardly registered more than a "how ironic" from this reader. Buffeted by circumstances that have been "thrown up from a plane of existence that I have done everything to deny," the unfortunate Tigor ("I only wanted to create order. I thought I could find some constant values.") could have been a tragicomic figure, but he seems more a prop for Jungkís considerable erudition, singular narrative sense, and sometimes perplexing prose.

Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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