Fiction – Kindle edition; Tuskar Rock; 166 pages; 2022.
When I was sent by the Soviet state to London to further my studies in calculus, knowing I would never become a great mathematician, I strayed instead into the foothills of anthropology.
It’s not every day you read a novel that is about surveying, peat extraction, electricity generation and exile — so full points to Berlin-based Irish writer Adrian Duncan for originality!
A Russian emigré in Ireland
The Geometer Lobachevsky, which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Walter Scott Prize and the 2023 Kerry Group Novel of the Year, is a unique story about a Russian man, Nikolai Lobachevsky, who finds himself in Ireland helping survey a peatland bog in the Midlands.
It is 1950, and Ireland is embarking on a new era of state-powered electricity generation inspired by the Soviet’s expertise in this subject area.
I am standing on the edge of a bog. There is wind. And sky meeting arm-opening land.
But Nikolai finds the work challenging, not because he can’t do it, but because his Irish counterparts don’t seem to understand the fundamental problems associated with measuring a landscape that moves and swells depending on its ever-changing water content.
His attempts to add rigour and mathematical accuracy to the process are viewed as comical and at odds with normal Irish conventions which is to just get things done with as little effort as possible (hence the quote above which refers to “anthropology”).
Exiled on an island
Not that it matters much in the long run, for Nikolai goes into hiding when he receives a letter calling him back to Leningrad to take up a “special appointment”.
In the pit of my stomach bubbles a pool of bile; I want to take a match to this pool, light it and burn it way, then take the match to what remains.
He reinvents himself as a Polish ex-POW who has discovered God and moves to an island on the Shannon estuary. Here he falls in with four devoutly Catholic Irish families and immerses themselves in their lives.
I live on the northern edge of this island of barely 300 acres, amid the hedges and pastures, in a gatehouse once owned by a member of what they call ‘the landed gentry’.
Eventually, the pull of his family back home, and the desire to see their faces for one last time, has him return to Russia — against his better judgement.
Strange and evocative tale
The Geometer Lobachevsky is an extraordinarily strange yet eerily evocative novel. The descriptions of landscapes and places are lush and cinematic.
References to mathematics infuse the text to remind us that Nikolai — the fictional grandson of the famous 19th-century Russian mathematician of the same name — is a geometer who sees everything around him through the lens of shapes and angles and numbers. It’s a neat touch.
But for all the descriptive language, and even the political commentary (which seems to suggest there was incompetency, corruption and violence within Ireland’s electricity industry as it was being set up), the narrative lacks propulsion. I kept wondering where the story was headed and didn’t much care in the end whether Nikolai lived or died.
It’s a book of moods, intrigue and vivid imagery. But I need more than that to truly fall in love with a story.
This is my fourth book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.