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The Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman

Jon Fasman

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On February 26, 2015
Last modified:February 26, 2015


An interesting, if perplexing book, replete with mystery combined with great writing.

The Geographer's LibraryMartin recently finished reading The Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman, an intriguing and perplexing novel.  Not content to be perplexed by himself, he loaned it to me. Hence,  the dual authorship of this review. I’ll set the stage and leave the really difficult parts to him.

Fasman’s characters live in multiple centuries. His protagonist Paul Tomm, a contemporary journalist, is fictional. Al-Idrisi, although not actually a character, is central to the plot. According to Wikipedia, he was a Spanish-Muslim philosopher, cartographer, linguist, and scholar, who lived in Sicily in the 12th century, at the court of King Roger II. When Al-Idrisi’s home is robbed by Omar Iblis,(fictional) he was away attempting to map the world. The book revolves around the stolen items, and how they are subsequently scattered, and much sought after.

This reader could find no mention of whether Al-idrisi was, in addition to his other talents, an alchemist. But the book is based on the premise that he was. And that the stolen items have the power to bestow eternal life, barring accident or murder, with no further aging from the moment of their aggregation. Though the reader is not told that the burlap sack used by the thief to carry his loot holds 15 items, the author weaves 15 items and their provenances into the storyline. For example, the first item is an alembic, the top part of an apparatus used for distilling chemicals. The earliest appearances of alembics  are found in the works of ancient Persian alchemists.

Tomm becomes involved when he is assigned to write the obituary of reclusive college professor Professor Jaan Pahapaev. In the process he discovers that the professor  is both more and less than he seemed. His past is murky and he may have lived far beyond the time allotted to mortals. Tomm is intrigued by his discoveries and by the fact that the coroner on the case meets an untimely death. Tomm is threatened by the polyglot assortment of characters he encounters when he asks questions about the professor. The bits and pieces of history entwined with the plot are captivating and Tomm’s observations about people often found this reader nodding in agreement. He is a somewhat feckless young man whose mind is concentrated by these events. 

Fasman is an artful writer who kept this reader reading long after I gave up trying to figure out where he was going with his story. The ending is not at all what I thought it would be, but getting there was a great ride.

“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

Well, I don’t know that I can do justice to the conference of the “hard parts” (Martin here jumping in).  But I do have some things to say about a book over which I am still shaking my head!  Like Marcia, I was entranced almost immediately after cracking the spine.  The book had been sitting unobtrusively among literally hundreds of others on one of 15 bookcases in my house.  I was looking for things to get rid of, when I noticed it.  (Obviously it wasn’t one of the half dozen books I was able to part with.)

Like the mysterious artifacts around which the story evolves, I have no idea where it came from or from whence I obtained it.  (I have a feeling I grabbed it from one of my parents’ many shelves several years ago, when they moved and had to downsize from 40 bookcases to a mere 20 or so.)  When I spied the cover, I thought perhaps it was a history book or a biography.  On closer observation, there written on the cover was the word “novel.”  You see, it doesn’t look like a novel, but you can’t always judge a book by its cover.  This particular volume was one of those that’s a pleasure to read and hold.  It just “looks” cool with artwork on the cover and subtle shades of tan, and even the size of the book.  It’s hard to explain, but I suspect some readers know what I’m talking about.

However, it wasn’t just the design and layout of the book that piqued curiosity.  It was the writing.  When I opened it and started reading, I found myself immediately engrossed.  William and George Washington were going to have to wait!

Fasman has a talent for weaving historical(?) events in the midst of his writing that is bewildering, but engaging.  He flits between his “feckless” protagonist, and a cast of supporting characters that leaves the reader wondering what the heck they all have to do with the story and how or if they will ever converge.  And so it goes throughout the entire book.

As Marcia noted, Tomm has an unusually finely developed sense of himself and others.  His observations about the people he works with, especially his boss, make the reader wish that the character wasn’t fictional.  Similarly, it would be too cool to meet professor Jadid, with whom Tomm starts solving the mystery.  (Jaid is a professor from the college from which Tomm graduated.  For reasons best intuited, Jadid and Tomm share a mutual respect.)  A conversation between the two is worth recounting.  Jadid begins by asking Tomm if he’s religious – this is perhaps the first indication in the story that there might be something perhaps metaphysical about the events in which Tomm has found himself embroiled.

“Out of curiosity,” he said, as I pulled out of the parking lot, “more than idle curiosity in this case — I have been wondering whether you consider yourself religious.”

“What do you mean, a believer in what?”

“Oh, the what doesn’t matter.  I suppose religion would be a natural place to start.    But I mean, are you, as a matter of temperament, inclined more toward belief or skepticism?  Not that the two are irreconcilable, of course.”

“Well, religion I guess I never had much of.  Went to church every so often when I was a kid, but I was never confirmed or anything.  I never really got a feeling for it, and both my parents are mixed, too, so they never really took to any one church or one community. Or any one family, but I guess that’s another story.”

“And do you feel you have missed anything as a result?”

“I guess I am little jealous of the people who find something in it, you know, or even people who make the rituals part of their lives.”

“Indeed, I suppose that even if religion fails to provide ontological comfort, it can at least provide structure.  Chronological structure, if not spiritual structure.”

I asked him what had led to this topic of conversation.

“Curious, just curious, just simple curiosity. I must say, I rarely make my way to synagogue these days.  My wife, as you may know, is, an Orthodox Christian, born in California to Syrian parents.  We raised our daughters in the Church, which caused no small amount of commotion in my family.  As I age, though, I increasingly feel drawn not towards the cosmogony or theological substance of Judaism but toward its rituals, as you said earlier.  Toward a sense of participating in something ancient and unbroken. I feel, with no small amount of shame, that I have proven myself a defective link in a chain, of believers, son to father, to grandfather, stretching back centuries.  Were I more detached, I might be able to appreciate the irony that prosperity accomplished what adversity never could.  Finally left alone to assimilate, I suppose that is precisely what we did.  And by we, of course, I mean I.”

This is a good example of the sort of perceptive and thoughtful dialog that Fasman employs throughout.  It’s not that every character is a philosophical professor, but rather the observations which are made either through the thoughts of Tomm or through the context of the conversations.  In an earlier episode, Tomm interacts with some people at the church where the saintly Hannah volunteers.  (Hannah is the neighbor of the mysterious Professor Jaan Pahapaev – and is a bit mysterious herself.)  The byplay and contrast between the two ministers also offers insights into Tomm himself, if not Fasman.

The end of the story is perhaps its weakest part, but if the mark  of a good story is that it leaves the reader wanting a bit more, then Fasman was successful.  The Geographer’s Library is worth reading not just for the story, but even more so for the writing and the clever and intriguing way the author provokes interest and curiosity.  I’m still shaking my head and thinking about it.


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