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University of Basel

Cancer. (01/2023)

On the essence of life.

Text: Chiara Saffirio

My book: As a kind of contrast to her research, Chiara Saffirio likes to read books that focus on people and their relationships. She is particularly fond of "A Late Divorce" by Abraham B. Yehoshua.

Chiara Saffirio presenting "A Late Divorce" by Abraham B. Yehoshua
Chiara Saffirio presenting "Late Divorce" by Abraham B. Jehoshua. (Photo: Universit├Ąt Basel, Andreas Zimmermann)

As a mathematician, my daily work deals with very rational objects and elegantly neat reasonings. By contrast, I’m most passionate about books that explore the beautiful complexity of human beings.

One of my favorite books is A Late Divorce by Abraham B. Yehoshua, who guides the reader through the complex inner world of relationships within a particular Jewish family. The story develops over the nine days preceding Jewish Easter, each day narrated in the first person (in the style of James Joyce) by a different member of the family.

The story that emerges by gluing together the visions of each character is centered on the visit of the pater familias, Mr. Kaminka, to his family in Israel. After some years in the US, he is coming back to divorce his wife who has been in a mental asylum for the past five years. Each member of the family is affected in some way by his visit. Little by little, the complex relationships between and the souls of the various characters – their humor, their passions, their fears, their dreams and their ambitions – are revealed. None of the storytellers sees reality as black and white. On the contrary, it becomes clear how many contrasting thoughts coexist.

Yehoshua leads the reader through the major themes of life, including the Jewish diaspora (and, in fact, any kind of exile). This culminates in the statement: “Homeland, why weren't you a homeland?”, which I believe to be a very current topic. This applies not only to the Jewish culture, where the diaspora clearly plays a central role; in Europe we’ve also been experiencing several immigration waves, including the one caused by the recent war in Ukraine.

On a very different scale, we also experience the exile condition in academia, where it is more and more common for young talented researchers to face the choice between leaving their homeland to pursue an academic career or abandoning academia to choose a different profession. This could be interpreted either as exile from a country or exile from academia.

In a very human, subtle and indirect way, sometimes full of humor, sometimes visionary, A Late Divorce is about the essence of life. It depicts topics at the macroscopic scale, such as the Jewish diaspora, and equally those at the microscopic scale, such as the personal choices and ambitions of each human being.

In science, we aim to model reality and this is often a difficult task. But nothing is more complex than the inner human soul and the relationships among human beings. The ability to show such complexity in a powerful yet beautiful way is what I define as art – and Yehoshua's novel definitely achieves this.   

Chiara Saffirio is Professor of Mathematical Physics. She studied at the La Sapienza University in Rome, earning her doctorate there in 2012. In 2013, she moved to Bonn, Germany, and then in 2014 to Zurich, Switzerland. Since 2019, she has been working at Basel University’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

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