Equilateral by Ken Kalfus
Before I get to Equilateral, I’d like to tell you about my previous experience reading Ken Kalfus, pre-blog. Back in 2006, friend Mark lent me a copy of Kalfus’s second novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I remember being quite shocked by it – although I soon got over that – for it is a very black comedy set in the aftermath of 9/11 in which a divorcing couple each believe the other was killed in the attacks and have to come to terms with them still being alive! In my spreadsheet I merely commented: This novel had some really good moments of satire – a couple of them laugh aloud , however the couple involved were so bitter and twisted by their divorce proceedings that you just wanted to get to the (cop-out fairy tale) ending to be relieved from their relentless fighting.
Seven years later came Equilateral, and although it too is an intellectual comedy of sorts, it couldn’t be more different…
The Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, described water-bearing channels on the surface of Mars in 1877 when the red planet was in opposition (it’s closest position to Earth). He called these channels ‘canali’ – channels, but they were translated as canals – and the myth that they were man-made began. American astronomer Percival Lowell compounded this theory in the mid 1890s. This is the background against which Equilateral is set.
Professor Sanford Thayer, a British astronomer is excavating in Egypt’s Western Desert, but not for archaeology. Having secured funding from a consortium led by Sir Harry named the Mars Concession, he is making something quite new, one of mankind’s greatest ever construction projects – to carve an equilateral triangle with sides over 300 miles long in the desert:
Thayer has determined that in daytime the desert’s perfect black triangle cast upon the white sands, incontrovertible proof of terrestrial intelligence, will be visible to indigenous observer equipped with telescopes on the plant Mars. Their attention will be seized. Then sometime before dawn on June 17, 1894, at the moment of Earth’s most favorable position in the Martian sky, the petroleum pooled in the trenches on each side of the Equilateral will be ignited simultaneously, launching a Flare from the Earth’s darkened limb that across millions of miles of empty space will petition for man’s membership in the fraternity of planetary civilisations.
This project is back-breaking for the 900,000 Arab fellahin – more than built the Suez Canal. It is also a logistical nightmare for chief engineer Ballard, not least in getting tankers of water out to the workers – they need 787,500 gallons per day. most of which is transported from the Nile. These figures alone bring home the sheer size of the endeavour.
Thayer and Ballard are based at Point A, oddly not the apex of the triangle, but the bottom left corner. It is at Point A that a town of tents and shacks has grown, and it is not an entirely male preserve either – there is a brothel shack. The desert is no place for a woman though, yet Thayer’s devoted secretary, Miss Keaton remains steadfastly by her employer, and stands up to Ballard to check progress for her boss – of course she is also a little in love with him, but propriety rules. He also has another woman to wait on him – Bint as he thinks she is called – is an Arab girl. Thayer speaks little Arabic and doesn’t realise that Bint just means girl. He is very taken with this girl, with whom he can only converse non-verbally, and when he is consumed by malaria, she is the one to minister to him.
The project is, as you might expect, beset with problems. The sheer logistics are one thing, but getting the workers to do enough work to finish on time is a constant battle. They are always threatening to down tools. What with the five daily calls to prayer interrupting work, and the politics of the area, it’s a miracle that it’s going as well as it is, according to Ballard. Thayer can’t conceive of missing the end date, even by a few days, he is blinded by his science and disparaging of any belief system that doesn’t meet his own views. Riding back from a progress visit, he snaps at a dragoman:
“The Prophet,” the dragoman says, taking note of Thayer’s confusion. “The verse in the Quran: ‘And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the Earth and what He has spread forth in both of them of living beings.’ ”
“I doubt that applies,” Thayer snaps. “Mohammend was an illiterate trader nine hundred years before Copernicus. He couldn’t have been aware of life on other planets.”
This is a tale of grand Victorian folly, but in between the somewhat clinical exposition of the task, there is a human tale lurking underneath. Thayer isn’t very likeable for the most part. He is privileged, and so cocksure of his theories, that we actually long for things not to go to plan to see how he reacts – and we will get to see that. However, there are people out there who do care for him, namely Miss Keaton and BInt, and through their care for him as he gets more frequent fevers, we gradually begin to have a little sympathy for him.
This is a stylishly written novel. Kalfus has taken care to make it all seem very Victorian, and not totally out of the question as a project being set after the Suez Canal opened. The text has occasional astronomical drawings in period style added which add to the feel, along with the evocative cover. It’s not an easy read, but I found it a rewarding one. The ending rather took me by surprise and I was moved by it. (8.5/10)
A great start to my 20 Books of Summer.
Source: Own copy from the TBR
Ken Kalfus, Equilateral (Bloomsbury, 2006) paperback 224 pages.