It’s impossible as I write now, in middle age, to describe the turbulence caused in my adolescent heart by this first, however prejudiced and incomplete, account of Uncle Petros’ story. My father had obviously intended it to serve as a cautionary tale and yet for me his words had exactly the opposite effect: instead of steering me away from his aberrant older brother, they drew me towards him as to a brilliantly shining star. mmm I was awestruck by what I’d learned. Exactly what this famous ‘Goldbach’s Conjecture’ was I didn’t know, nor at that time did I care very much to learn. What fascinated me was that the kindly, withdrawn and seemingly unassuming uncle of mine was in fact a man who, by his own deliberate choice, had struggled for years on end at the outermost boundaries of human ambition. This man whom I’d known all my life, who was in fact my close blood relative, had spent his whole life striving to solve One of the Most Difficult Problems in the History of Mathematics! While his brothers were studying and getting married, raising children and running the family business, wearing out their lives along with the rest of nameless humanity in the daily routines of subsistence, procreation and killing time, he, Prometheus-like, had striven to cast light into the darkest and most inaccessible corner of knowledge.
The fact that he had finally failed in his endeavour not only did not lower him in my eyes but, on the contrary, raised him to the highest peak of excellence. Was this not, after all, the very definition of the plight of the Ideal Romantic Hero, to Fight the Great Battle Although You Know It To Be Desperate? In fact, was my uncle any different from Leonidas and his Spartan troops guarding Thermopylae? The last verses of Cavafy’s poem I had learned at school seemed ideally applicable to him:
. . . But greatest honour befits them that foresee,
As many do indeed foresee,
That Ephialtes the Traitor will finally appear
And thus the Persians will at last
Go through the narrow straits.
~ UNCLE PETROS AND GOLDBACH’S CONJECTURE
From the bays of Pearl Coast,
Fish a ton of oysters, strike a shiny pearl.