Geometry in the Dust

Chapter 1

I am on site now, equipped with a trammel hook spyglass I’ve never understood the use of, a spiral-bound notebook, a pencil, and a sharpener. To describe my exact location to you would be pointless, whether I were to refer to a conjunction of longitudes and latitudes, or to tell you the names of the streets stretching away from this intersection. Picture a landscape of polyhedrons, mostly flat, mostly level, of bulbs and electric wires, slowly sloping inclines and broken lines: imagine these geometries, so hard, so austere, despite some curves there, some soft draping effects here, all of it so radically different from what we’re accustomed to in our own land, our country of sand and rumpled burlap.

In the middle of our desert we lingered long, you and I, among the rags, the books, our trunk’s contents dumped out and arranged on the carpet, pulling up camp and striking out anew each day like the shepherds that we are (whenever we pack up and walk ten miles, so as to find a little more grass somewhere else, we follow after our goats). And yet, despite our resemblance to poor shepherds, we are so much more than that: you, by birth, are the inheriting prince, you rule over this country of sand which stretches–do not be afraid of words!–from Ahram to Nishir; –while I, by vocation, am your minister (of Economy, of Religion, of War, and also of the City, we decided). As your sole, faithful minister, your counsellor, chamberlain, and your scapegoat, having weathered many dry seasons and countless reorganizations of your cabinet, I am your confidant too, and, judging from appearances–one can say this without offending the dignity of your kingdom or its constitution, we might even call me your friend. But the hierarchy in place at court (our court, our palace: extending east to west, to the limits of the two horizons) under its strict and rigid form conceals our amity–so, therefore, keep in mind: if I let my fondness for you show through, if I joke around or rekindle old stories, I’m addressing you only as a man in your service, nobly carrying out the duties you’ve entrusted to me.

A kingdom of sand, situated between Ahram to the west, and Nishir to the east: that’s already quite a lot for such a young sovereign (you have not yet reached fifty years of age), and the riches that come with it are enough to rival the fortunes of Suleiman. Of course it would be so much better if, instead of this vast expanse of sand, you had a throne to sit upon, a throne worthy of being called a throne, that is. We’ve often spoken of the three thrones of the bishop of Rome, one of which is entirely of porphyry, and we once saw a miniaturist model of the throne of Frederick II; but we came to realize that an armchair built to seat your sovereignty could not fulfill its purpose without a dais to lift it up; and we also realized that a dais would hardly suffice without an immense hall to complement and enhance it, a room defined by four walls, with ribbed windows, and thinly-veined pilasters relieving the walls’ monotony. We just as soon realized that the totality of a palace would be required to justify that room, a palace comprised of divers chambers, corridors, stairwells, tiny alcoves, wings, an immense saddlery, and countless nooks; we understood then too that our palace would all be for naught if it were to stand in the middle of a desert, like a mirage or an eccentric Englishman’s folly (thus recalling the madness of the caliph Hakem): so we planned to place some residential streets around it (unless you would prefer instead a commercial district, a center of trade, or to build your palace as near as possible to the city’s poorest denizens, where every street slants–indeed, it is exceedingly hard to set up a palace and its lawns in a tight alleyway, where the shoemaker and old junk-man seek their refuge from the light and exorbitant rents). We saw in the end it would be useless to construct one little neighborhood without building a whole city and regulating it with laws, and so we asked our engineers to leave space in their blueprints for suburbs, because the prerogatives of a founder-king extend well beyond the walls of his citadel: in fact, there isn’t a single speck of dust within a distance of one thousand stadia to your palace that does not add to your reign in some way or another, and thus enhance your city, your neighborhood, your palace, your throne-room, your throne-platform, and your throne, where you will take your place with all the dignity of Charles V.

How many long afternoons we spent stirring the sand and dreaming of our city (it ceased to be a dream, it became a project): first taking down some rough measurements, consulting the wind-rose, boring down a little into the earth. We recalled the harshness of certain lines: those of the pyramid of Imhotep, those of al-Jazari’s water pumps; we so much wanted for our city to be as effective as his watermills, always turning, never grinding. We weren’t too timid to make some rough drawings as children are wont to do, first just setting them down on the page, then gradually honing our geometer’s rigor (at least so we thought); and no scruples prevented us from drawing our first blueprints in the sand, well aware that the precision of our dreams was incompatible with that substance of the desert just beneath our sandals. We took to studying bucket-wheels and we also memorized the theorem of Menelaus which permits the sine of angles to be determined; to draw up our city’s blueprints it was necessary to study the Book of Rare Things in the Art of Calculation by Abū Kāmil, and the Book on the Measurement of Plane and Spherical Figures of the Banū Mūsā brothers, despite the fact that it was rapidly becoming clear to us that the methods described there cannot be applied to something as obtuse as a handful of dry dirt, or a pile of pebbles. It was a time of exultation, grotesque at times–not a minute to be bored, nor even to milk our goats–, and while I gathered up the tent stakes, you read aloud from Ibn Sahl’s treatise on the refraction of light through crystal surfaces. A time of not exactly failure, but just tomfoolery, plain and simple; the rain (the first downpour in sixty years) demolished our sand-sculptures–or sometimes you or I did, with a swift kick (same difference). And yet, we need that city, we must have that city, not only so that your armchair of rare wood bejeweled with emeralds can have its place there, but also so that your kingdom can function properly, because without a city there will be no prison for regicides, without a city there will be no groceries to indicate the price of wheat, no parliament to pass your bills, no bars in which to foment the revolution, and no brothels either, no cellars where the opponents of your regime will set up their headquarters.

To construct a city, to plan out every last detail, that has been our first priority for a long time now: a job worthy of Solomon, an obsession to rival Caracalla. Opening the Koran to sura XC (The City) helped us none either (Verily, we have brought forth man into toil and struggle) and I should even say that despite an evident poetical charm, it weakened our morale–to understand the city, to know how to build it from its foundation up to the weathervanes on the roof-tops, up to the fine stucco flourishes, it was necessary to one day quit that desert and to travel by foot, by horseback or by rail to a city, a different city, so that it might serve decisively as our model. Because your lordship requires it (a prince has his obligations), you remained in the country, alongside your subjects and the herd; and because I am your subaltern and because I don’t get seasick, I made the journey here. Now that I am on the ground, I’ll be able to make some notes, take some precise measurements, and compare these to the figures we deduced from The Conference of Birds; I will at long last be able to understand the use of the ‘T’ and the difference between a lane and an alley. This journey took a measure of frugality on our part (a tiny fraction of the royal endowment), it personally cost me fatigue and several arguments (long story, but a dispute at the border, missing documents), my mission requires our separation for some time, but all of these sacrifices will not be in vain if they permit us to put an end to our incompetence, once and for all.


Pierre Senges

Funny, virtuosic, and profound, the work of Pierre Senges includes fourteen books and countless radio plays. Critics have called Senges a “Baroque encyclopedist,” and the “best kept secret of contemporary French literature.” His erudite fictions unfold in the margins of other texts in the form of commentaries, catalogs, and encyclopedias, often ingeniously inverting the relation of truth to falsity. He is the recipient of prizes for Ruines-de-Rome (2002) and Veuves au maquillage (2000) as well as for his radio work. His longest novel, Fragments de Lichtenberg (2008), is forthcoming in English translation from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. His next book, Achab (séquelles), will be published by Éditions Verticales later this year.

Jacob Siefring

Jacob Siefring is a Canadian-American translator and literary critic. His translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Vestiges, Ambos, Golden Handcuffs Review, Gorse Journal, and Hyperion, while his essays and criticism have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Montreal Review of Books, The Winnipeg Review, and The Quarterly Conversation. He keeps a blog at and can be reached at

Géométrie dans la poussière. Copyright (c) Gallimard, 2004. English translation copyright (c) Jacob Siefring, 2015.