The Geometer Lobachevsky by Adrian Duncan review – an atmospheric tableau
For anyone who’s ever bemoaned the parochialism of contemporary literary fiction – its preponderance of writer protagonists, thinking and doing the things that writers think and do – here is a corrective: a novel about the mechanised harvesting of peat in 1950s Ireland, told from the perspective of a mathematician. Its eponymous narrator is a Russian emigre hired by Bord na Móna, an Irish state-owned company based in Kildare, to help measure swathes of land set for drainage. After weeks spent tracing vast triangles across bogs, swamps and pastures, he receives an ominous letter summoning him back to the USSR; unnerved, he decamps to a small island on the Shannon estuary in order to lie low.
The Geometer Lobachevsky is light on plot but heavy on ambience. Adrian Duncan’s narrator registers a succession of sensory impressions with the bland officiousness of a surveyor’s report: the lowing of cows and lapping of waves; the comings and goings of gannets and gulls; downpours of varying intensity; sunlight glistening on jars of marmalade; “the quiet but busy rumble of carts, cars and tractors”. The narrative voice is almost compelling in its studied dullness. A typical sentence reads: “I walk towards the tripod to see, with the evening sun breaking through a row of poplars edging the field, what the visibility through the theodolite is like.” This monotone is intermittently thrown into relief by the lively, colloquial dialogue of various Irish characters.
Lobachevsky’s attempts to suss out his hosts and their culture (“I am not always quite sure when these men are joking”) form the novel’s psychological core. His boss, Rhatigan, is a brooding figure who has channelled his repressed guilt about his violent past into an obsessive work ethic. Lobachevsky scrutinises people as if they were maths problems: he speculates of Rhatigan’s underling, Colm, that “all that seems harmless in him is the precise obverse of what is pernicious … if these two facets were the opposing faces of a larger complicated form like a dodecahedron, then what might the other opposing facets of this form comprise?… what might one learn as to the nature of the entity?”
Duncan worked as a structural engineer for many years before becoming a visual artist and then an author. Though his interest in getting inside the heads of logicians and engineers is by no means unique – Will Eaves’s fictionalisation of Alan Turing in Murmur (2018) and Adam Mars-Jones’s portrayal of a military contractor in Batlava Lake (2021) spring to mind – he’s relatively unusual in having built an entire small oeuvre around such figures: his previous novel, A Sabbatical in Leipzig, centres on the reminisces of a retired bridge engineer; his 2019 debut, Love Notes from a German Building Site, does pretty much what it says on the tin.
The Geometer Lobachevsky features some pleasing descriptions. An old barfly’s “hindquarters protrude in a way that thrusts the top half of his body forward as if he smells the world first before he sees it”; outcrops of lichens on a cliffside “appear as adamant citadels”; elsewhere we encounter a “corduroy of gnarled planks”. The rendering of Irish names in Russified spelling early in the novel, presumably because the narrator doesn’t yet know any better, is a neat touch – Colm is “Kolim”, Connolly is “Konolii”, and so on. Broad overarching themes – the idea of infrastructure as a building block of nationhood; the loneliness of exile – are subtly teased out of the assorted minutiae of topsoil, spirit levels and ordnance.
On the downside, it drags a bit. If the narrator’s lugubrious laconicism rings true to the diminished experience of a life in limbo, the novel’s pervasive sense of inertia is no less frustrating for being deliberate. You can do great things with negative space in the visual arts, but the novel form is in certain respects stubbornly conservative: it cannot do without narrative thrust. Duncan’s protagonist stumbles upon the nub of the problem during one of his ruminations: “I’ve come to realise that geometric visualisations without their mirroring algebra fail in the realm of application.” Indeed, what we have here is not so much a story as a tableau. Artfully arranged, for sure, and intriguing up to a point – but not enough.
• The Geometer Lobachevsky by Adrian Duncan is published by Tuskar Rock (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.