|Jul/Aug 2010 Reviews & Interviews|
The Geometry of God
Uzma Aslam Khan.
Clockroot Books. 2009. 3384 pp.
Given that most books with the slightest connection to Islam feature covers with veiled women baring their kohl-lined eyes for the curious outsider's gaze, The Geometry of God's black-and-white jacket depicting an animal skeleton is probably fair warning that Uzma Aslam Khan's Pakistan is going to get in the way of the sensationalized portrayals of the country so beloved by mainstream (Western) media. In her third book, Aslam gives us a female paleontologist, charged writing about the erotic, and a profound inquiry into the often-vexing relationship between faith and reason. Add to these riches the voice of a blind child "taste-testing" words, and The Geometry of God becomes that rare creature, a novel where the urgency of the message is matched by the verve of the narrative.
Eight-year old Amal, accompanying her paleontologist grandfather Zahoor on a dig, finds the fossilized ear bone of a dog-whale—a discovery that revolutionizes theories about mammalian evolution in the region. On the same day, Amal's younger sister Mehwish goes blind. Each event has profound consequences for both siblings. Amal, who grows up to be a paleontologist, takes up the task of interpreting the visual world for her sister. Mehwish, simultaneously limited by and liberated by her blindness, develops a unique relationship with the physical world, even as the siblings befriend Noman, the son of a creationist politician.
The intelligent, well-educated Noman is charged by his father to use the Quran to logically "prove" scientific laws false. Bound by family duty, Noman overcomes the demands of his conscience and his intellect to author revisionist texts that successfully remove all references to Newton, Archimedes and Einstein. But the fundamentalists seek to energize their political campaign by targeting living rather than dead scientists, and no-one suits their purpose better than Amal's flamboyant, outspoken grandfather. Noman, designated to be the architect of Zahoor's denouncement, must decide where his loyalties lie.
The Geometry of God is all about angles, planes and perspectives. At the literary level, Khan shows us the same event through the eyes of different characters, demonstrating the inadequacy of a unilateral vision. At the thematic level, the central preoccupation of this text is questioning how we know what we know—about the physical world, about ourselves, and especially about God. While religious fundamentalists believe in a single interpretation, Khan describes two approaches to God—first, through khayal, thought which comes from intellect and zauq, an experience of joy achieved through the senses. Khan's work is in fact a perfect synthesis of both approaches; we understand her universe as much through the sensuous in her writing as by her thoughtful description and analyses. So, to sum up, this novel concerns itself with epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, logic... yes, Khan's canvas is philosophy itself.
The novel's themes are further revealed in the author's playful, luminous use of language. Mehwish "sees" words sideways so as to reveal hidden meanings; paleontology hence becomes "pale into logic," dog-whale "dog-wail," perilous "peri less," commander "come under," and promiscuous "promise kiss," Despite the obvious temptation, there is no gimmickry; in fact, the author's intelligence, imprinted on every page like a watermark, blooms into full color when delving into Mehwish's strange and lovely inner world.
I have questions in my head like Amal in traffic lines are crooked cars are over taking left and right. It is as noisy as the silence when she leaves me in a place I do not know.
The Geometry of God is set in the seventies and eighties—an era when the CIA was pumping millions into the country to combat Russians in Afghanistan, and when the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq was gaining power on a platform of Islamic orthodoxy. The book may be (and probably will be) read by many as a primer to the growth of fundamentalism in the region; to my mind, however, that is the least of what this gorgeous, complex stunner of a novel offers.