Monday, 9 December 2019

An Intellectual Comedy

Updated: February 15, 2014 2:46 pm

A British astronomer, Sanford Thayer, high on Darwin and other progressive scientists of the age, has come to believe that beings more highly evolved than us are alive on Mars and that there will be a perfect moment in which we can signal to them that we are here too. He gets the support and funding for a massive project to build the equilateral, a triangle with sides hundreds of miles long, in the desert of Egypt in time for that perfect window. But as work progresses, the Egyptian workers, less evolved than the British, are also less than cooperative, and a bout of malaria that seems to activate at the worst moments makes it all much more confusing and complex than Thayer ever imagined.

In this book, we see Thayer also through the eyes of two women—a triangle of another sort—a romantic one that involves a secretary who is committed to the man and his vision, and the mysterious servant girl he covets without sharing a common language—and through them we catch sight of the depth of self-delusion and the folly of the enterprise.

The 207-page book sometimes feels too slender, its characters one-dimensional, leaving the reader with little emotional investment in Thayer and his companions. But Ken Kalfus writes so well that his storytelling carries us along. Only rarely does his language become overdrawn, as when he points out the “lush lactic wash of the Milky Way” or notes that the servant girl is as “supple as a cat and as fecund as the Nile.” Equilateral is written with a subtle, sly humor, but it’s also a model of reserve and historical accuracy; it’s about many things, including Empire and colonisation and exploration.

Throughout the opening chapters of his novel, Kalfus is so captivated by his own fictional fantasy of that giant triangular 19th century greeting card flashing into space that he’s content to just elaborate on the details. He describes how 900,000 native workers toil deep in what Thayer calls “the Great Sand Sea”; those workers are under strict command not to deviate one inch in their digging lest the Martians mistakenly think that a geometrically imprecise triangle is a natural, rather than a man-made, phenomenon. Toward the end, though, Kalfus redeems Equilateral with some fine twists as the narrative becomes darker and more complex, evolving into a more intricate fable, an exploration of man’s hubris. As the world awaits word from the Martians, Thayer’s dream of intergalactic communication and the progress of science turn into an economic equation.

The stage is thus set for a comedy, but Kalfus’s comedy of ideas is as dry as the scorched desert winds, and as black as the pitch poured into the equilateral’s trenches. By means of a contemporaneous, first-person-plural narration, Kalfus keeps imaginative intellectual sympathy and devastating retrospective irony in miraculous equipoise. This can work to purely comic effect—as when the narrators and the characters imagine that the vastly more advanced Martians must be using really enormous steam engines—and also in a more troubling vein, when the reader is led through the superficially plausible arguments of social Darwinism that we know later led to the 20th-century’s racist eugenics.

A compact and deeply satisfying work of fiction, Equilateral is a weird little novel, but any reader familiar with Ken Kalfus expects his writing to go off-road.

By Ashok Kumar

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