Storyglossia Issue 12, March 2006.

A Survey of the Works of Ernesto Veto

by Donavan Hall


Recently, the body of Ernesto Veto was found in his apartment in New York's Upper West Side by his landlord who immediately called the police. The forensic unit declared Veto's death a suicide from a massive dose of sleeping pills. Nearly two weeks passed before the first obituaries appeared. The New York Times Book Review devoted only two column inches to covering Veto's life and work while assiduously avoiding saying anything of note or value about the writer's career. The piece that appeared in The New York Observer while longer made a number of unfortunate comparisons of Veto's work to superficially similar works by more famous authors—comparisons that would have given the deceased no pleasure at all. The article left the impression with the reader that he was merely the writer of curious science fiction thrillers and completely avoided addressing Veto's contribution to literature and the art of the novel.

In the years leading up to the suicide of Ernesto Veto, this enigmatic, reclusive writer produced a body of work that is simultaneously profound and haunting.

In his novel, 9 Minutes, a man wakes up in his room on a space station. He looks at the time on his alarm clock. The man shuffles to the toilet to empty the contents of his bladder.

Hector Flaminio staggers back out of his water closet and notices his alarm clock. Nine minutes have passed. He's confused. He couldn't have been in his water closet for a full nine minutes. Had he fallen asleep? Impossible. He didn't sit down. Then he notices the blood on his hands. He thinks that he must have cut himself on something sharp in the water closet. He returns to wash his hands. He fails to find any evidence of a cut or any injury that could have served as the source of the blood.

After pulling on a jumper he proceeds to the galley where he finds the body of Jan Hamitz, the station's agronomist, splayed on the floor with his throat cut. A bloodied knife discarded in the corner. Flaminio, horrified, alerts Mohammed Al-fareed, the mission commander. Flaminio gives an account of how he found Hamitz, but says nothing about the missing nine minutes or the blood he washed from his hands.

The review in The New York Observer called 9 Minutes a detective story and a psychological thriller. While on one level the novel can be read as that, the book, like it's main character, Hector Flaminio, is a cipher. The letters of each word in the original Spanish version composed by Ernesto Veto when converted to numbers and combined using various mathematical operations, then remapped onto the Cyrillic alphabet produce an exact copy of Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment in the original Russian.

To this day, Ernesto Veto's 9 Minutes is the only novel written with a mathematical appendix.

After the publication of 9 Minutes Ernesto Veto expressed his interest in the connection between literature and mathematics in two experimental works: π and e. For these works he adopted a strict form of literary composition. He used only words with the same number of letters as each successive digit in the title number of the novel. For example, the first few digits of the number π are 3.14159. The opening of the novel π is "Say, I need a thick ridgepole..." Three letters in the first word. One letter for the second word. Four letters for the third word, and so on.

Of course, Veto did not draw attention to this restriction and many critics missed it completely. By the time e was published the method of Veto's composition was well known and the critics were more receptive to this second literary embodiment of a nonrepeating transcendental number which in no way was a sequel to the previous work. Each work embodied the character of their title number. The narrative of e conveyed a sense of approaching a limit and exponential growth. In π everything cycles and oscillates; it's a novel of the Eternal Return.

In an interview, Veto described how he worked. Using his computer he took an unabridged dictionary and grouped all the words according to their rank (the number of letters they contain). Words of rank one are I and a. In addition to these two, he allowed idiomatic contractions to serve as rank one words, for example, it's would correspond to the occurrence of 21 in the nonrepeating sequence. Will o'the wisp would be 4134. Occasionally, he would use the rank one contraction t' in place of the rank three word the. Several critics found such innovations contrary to the spirit of Veto's program, but none of those critics offered to accept the challenge of constructing a readable story without them.

Once Veto compiled the words in rank order, he subdivided the ranks into parts of speech; so that he had lists of four letter adjectives, four letter nouns, four letter verbs, etc. He composed using a program he wrote that would keep track of the current digit of the transcendental number. If the current digit was 8, the program would display a menu of all the available 8 letter words. He would make his selection with the click of his mouse and move to the next digit.

Zeros presented a particular problem for Veto. How to handle them? A zero is a nonword—a word with no letters. One solution for zeroes was to combine the zero either with the digit before or after. Combining the zero with the digit after was equivalent to ignoring the zero—something that bothered Veto—but was necessary when the zero followed digits higher than 2 given the scarcity of words of rank 20 and higher.

Veto considered his masterwork to be e. He labored for twenty years to complete e. The number e begins 2.718281828459045235360287471352662497 and so on. Veto's novel makes use of the first fifty thousand digits of e—only the beginning. In one of his mathematico-philosophical essays he muses about the possible correspondence between sequences of infinite non-repeating numbers. He wonders if there are sequences in the number e that correspond to identical sequences in the number π. The root question of his numerical philosophy was whether all transcendental numbers were in fact just shifted sequences of each other. Perhaps there is only one infinite non-repeating sequence, a master sequence, in which all other transcendental numbers participate. Ernesto Veto spent the last few years of this life trying to derive the generating function for this master sequence, this infinite non-repeating sequence without beginning or end. It is possible that this search led ultimately to the author's suicide.


Copyright©2006 Donavan Hall