Wednesday, July 4, 2012

G is for Geographer's Library

At first all I could hear was a whooshing sound, like someone was holding the phone out an open car window. Then something or someone tapped on the mouthpiece, three times, then a pause, then three times again.


"Hello? Hello?" I called down the phone.


"Not this one. Not this one. Not this one. Not this one..." A deep, expressionless voice droned on as I looked across at Art flicking a cigarette with his thumbnail. I held the phone away from my ear, and when I listened again, the words had changed to "I'll find her. I'll find her. I'll find her. " I gently knocked on Art's desk to get his attention and handed it to him. He put the phone to his ear and looked at me strangely.


"What do you think?" I whispered.


"Round these parts we call this a dial tone," he said, handing the phone back to me. Sure enough a robust dial tone sounded in the earpiece.



Paul Tomm, a  - slightly-wet-behind-his-ears - reporter working in a small-town newspaper, is asked to write an obit for a Professor of his Alma-Mater. Paul takes it up like any other assignment: the professor, Jaan Puhapaev, was old and lived a solitary life with few friends or relatives. There are only two things that appear a little odd. One, the police had received an anonymous call informing them about the professor's death, and two, the pathologist doing the autopsy has certain vague suspicions.

What Paul doesn't know is that what he is taking up as routine work, goes back centuries to the famed geographer al-idrisi and even earlier to Abraham. If the mention of Abraham has made you go like, "Oh no, another Dan brown clone" than rest-assure, Abraham is just a passing reference. The main focus is on al-idrisi.

 Al-idrisi was the famed librarian of Baghdad as well as the geographer at King Roger II's court in Sicily. Once he set out on a journey to chart the world's map, carrying with him what he claimed to be something that could either make or break a man. But he also left behind him items of immense value that were subsequently stolen from his house. These objects vary from an alembic, to a chess piece, to a playing card of a crying queen. Here's the description of one item that had me mesmerized:


" ...the Kaghan you would call Yusuf and I Joseph demanded of me whether there might be found on earth a quality of light more lasting than that of either the sun or the moon, which extinguish themselves every night, and more faithful than that of fire, which can rage and die like an old man whose only daughter marries an infidel. I replied that the sun is everlasting and night is only earth's blindness, but he forestalled this argument and brought forth two earthen containers, one light and one dark, both cruder than any item befitting a caliph, and dipped into each a lit reed, whereupon the lighter container glowed first the cheek of a young girl in love, then took on the shine seen in the eye of a man who has discovered the answer to a vexing problem, and then steadies into the shine of a child sun in training. The other glowed hard as a proud woman pursued by an ardent but poor scholar, silver like a lake at night, like the moon's daughter." (238)

The book narrates both Paul's increasingly dangerous assignment as well as the story of these objects, scattered as they are almost all-over the world though a majority of them are to be found in the Central-Asian states of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Incorporated alongside are some interesting beliefs and mythical ideas. Here's a description of the beliefs of the Yakuts:


The whispering of the stars," he said.


"The what?"


"A poet like you should appreciate this They call it 'the whispering of the stars.' Listen," He said, raising a finger for silence. I could still hear the tinkling and craned my neck to see what it was. Zhensky laughed. "No, here. Look." He formed his mouth into a wide O and exhaled slowly. As he did, I saw the cloud of breath fall in droplets to the ground. That was the sound I heard: our breath falling. "It's a Yakut expression. It means a period of weather so cold that your breath falls frozen to the ground before it can dissipate. The Yakuts say that you should never tell secrets outside during the whisperings of the stars, because the words themselves freeze, and in the spring thaw anyone who walks past that spot will be able to hear them. In springtime the air fills with old gossip, unheeded commands, the voices of children who have become adolescents, and snatches of long-finished conversation. Your voice, Comrade Poet, our conversation, will remain here far longer than you." (135-136).

And another one regarding the imagination of a creative mind:


Tiima was the son of Paldiski's mayor, Jaan Uus, who wrote but never published a "hexadecalogue" of novels that told Estonia's history from the perspective of a series of waves trapped in between the Baltic Sea and Matsalu Bay, dreaming of oceans but batted for centuries between Hiiumaa and the western mainland coast near Rohukula. The only wave to escape this purgatory was the protagonist of the fourth novel, who carried a Danish ship from King Sweyn's court to western Estonia to Hiiumaa during a winter storm.


Tiima became obsessed with the metaphorical implications of the fourth novel in the series and eventually wrote a manuscript of his own about the passengers of that ship, which, he believed, was not fictional. His manuscripts, Arabs of the North Sea, contented that the key to Estonian identity was an item of tremendous power and worth that al-Idrisi brought from the still center of the earth, Baghdad, to the frozen and benighted wastelands between the Baltic Sea and Lake Peipsi. (282-283)


But for the ending, which is a bit bland, the novel is exciting enough to keep one glued.

And I absolutely loved this line as Paul faces a gun pointed towards him:

Any movie that shows someone delivering witty last lines is a lie. I doubt I could have talked if I wanted to. (333)

Will Smith please note.



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The book can be ordered online. I picked mine from the CRL.




First Line: Dear H: I thought you would be dead by now.

Title: The Geographer's Library

Author: Jon Fasman

Publication details: NY: Penguin, 2005

First Published: 2005

Pages: 374

Other Books Read: None

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Submitted for the New Authors Challenge:

Also submitted for the following challenges: A-Z (Titles), AZRC, European Reading, Find the Cover, Mystery and Suspense.

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Entry for letter G in the Crime Fiction Alphabet.

4 comments:

  1. I think you must be one of the greatest readers about who blogs. I love to write my blog but am not a great reader, just so much to do that it is difficult to find time and I tend to make things when I do get free time.....

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    1. Oh Rob, it's very kind of you to say this but there are so many who read a staggering number of books and blog with a frequency that is amazing.

      And I love your blog, so hope you continue to write it.

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  2. I loved all the quotes from the book! It sounds very good.

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    1. Do read it Peggy. It certainly is interesting.

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