The Geometer Lobachevsky opens, like a Chekhov play, on a desolate plain. The bogs of the Irish Midlands. Nikolai Lobachevsky (great-grandson of a famous Russian mathematician) has ended up in the bogs of the Irish Midlands. He is adding his Russian expertise to surveying the landscape in preparation for building a power station as 1950s Ireland moves into the Industrial age. He finds the area reminiscent of his home: ‘the sky is grey in that drab way I would often see, when I was young’ but is an outsider, bemused by the local names (he spells them phonetically, so Colm becomes ‘Kolim’). Nikolai is content to remain in Ireland, anonymous and safe from Stalin’s Russia. Yet, he is always aware of his distance from the Irish,
‘I realise how I had visualised their names as differently to how Rhatigan spells them, and I wonder how differently then he and I must encounter and make sense of the rest of the world.’
Nikolai tries to make sense of the world through science and mathematics. In surveying the world, he tries to impose order, ‘a type of precision outside of links and numbers.’ Nikolai’s mind ceaselessly seeks to categorise but the chaos of history destroys such hopes.
While there is plot in The Geometer Lobachevsky, it is almost irrelevant. Instead, this is a stunning novel of landscape, an interior landscape (of isolation and uncertainty) and Adrian Duncan’s superb evocation of the landscape, and the climate, of Ireland. An Irish summer is ‘like an afternoon from early spring and a morning from late autumn’ while Duncan also manages to capture the many varieties of rain to be found in Ireland, ‘the sort of rain you get in this place, when the worst has passed and the rain seems to be showing… what is light-hearted in its nature.’ Like Gerald Murnane’s novels, The Geometer Lobachevsky looks for meaning within the landscape, even if it is a reflective blankness.
This is a fascinating novel, which finds echoes between Russia and Ireland, their history of revolution and civil war. This is captured in Rhatigan, the manager of the surveying project, who Nikolai describes as ‘more Soviet than me.’ Rhatigan is ‘one of the technically adept, bureaucratic and secularly religious’ men vitalised by the modernisation that he is engaged in. He sees it as a revolution as much as that of the Russian Revolution:
‘The developments in your country stemmed from a hatred of the Czars. Our projects emerge from the wish to show fairness to our fellow workers, not hatred towards what came before.’
The Geometer Lobachevsky has the air of a Magnus Mills novel where men are engaged in mysterious labour. Yet here, the labour is to build modernity out of the past. Nikolai observes a machine digging up the bogland and understands the contradiction of his task: ‘another machine raises great chunks of this ancient material.’ The landscape is a representation of the human suffering that has played out across it. Nikolai, a veteran of World War Two, remembers an Ukrainian soldier he met in a military hospital:
‘he was the sort of person who had gouged his story into the surface of the earth, whereas I was the sort who had barely seemed to touch it.’
Any Cop?: No other novel I have read in some time has left such an unsettling impression and vivid memory of some scenes. The Geometer Lobachevsky is remarkably resonant in its capacity to capture the ‘language of movement and uncertainty’ that is at the heart of twentieth-century history.