Adrian Duncan’s new novel is his fourth book in four years (I’ll have whatever he’s having). His 2019 debut, Love Notes from a German Building Site, which won the inaugural John McGahern Book Prize, was followed by A Sabbatical in Leipzig (2020) and a short-story collection, Midfield Dynamo (2021). From Longford but based in Berlin, Duncan is also an artist and film-maker, with a visual vocabulary that reverberates in his image-rich writing.
The Geometer Lobachevsky is told in flashback from the deathbed of the titular character. Nikolai Lobachevsky is the namesake of his mathematician great-grandfather, renowned for his work on the geometry of curves. Although the younger Lobachevsky has an aptitude for visualising complicated geometrics, he fails to meet his expected potential in maths. “What I lack in my ability now to read numbers I make up for with my ability to read people,” he tells us.
While helping with a land survey in Ireland in the early 1950s, Lobachevsky receives a letter from the Russian ministry of state security ordering him back to Leningrad for a “special appointment”. The state has turnedg a blind eye to “any small transgressions” due to his expected contribution to mathematics, but after a series of demotions, he worries that the protection may be running out. Fearful of his fate if he goes back, Lobachevsky goes into hiding on a small island in the Shannon estuary, pretending to be Polish, until he feels it is safe to return home.
Lobachevsky’s perceived transgressions may include the expression of his sexuality: homosexuality was criminalised under Stalin, with thousands sent to the Gulag for the “offence”. He is heartbroken since losing the love of his life, Matvei, a young screenwriter who was killed on a train in mysterious circumstances. “Since the shock of his death, I seem to have marooned myself into a sexual exile, a sort of numbness,” reflects Lobachevsky.
His other friend from army training camp, Gusev, a sculptor, was accused of subversion and died in the Gulag. (The name Gusev is likely a nod to the Chekhov story of the same name, in which a soldier is consumed by nature after being buried at sea.)
When Stalin dies, Lobachevsky decides to take his chances with returning to Russia, hoping to reconcile with his sister, from whom he has been estranged since she married a Bolshevik. "I realise that what is reemerging into the pit of my stomach is the bile of homesickness," he says. "It is as if some great obstacle
has suddenly been removed from my gut and into it flows again, at last, the loneliness of not being near those who speak and move in ways I made patterns from as a child." But is it ever safe to return?
The ominous ambience of Stalinism is chilling in light of the current state of affairs in Russia, with the book’s theme of exile all the more poignant in light of the mass exodus from Ukraine.
“For many months I was moved from basement to basement, all dotted through central London, sometimes sharing these rooms with emigrés in similar states of flux,” Lobachevsky recalls of his time in London awaiting a Polish passport. “I wonder where those men and women I met have flung themselves off to now. I wonder if they live day to day, like me, tired with fear.”
Duncan’s previous novels took construction and engineering as their backdrop. Thanks to its rural setting, The Geometer Lobachevsky is filled with simple yet lyrical descriptions of landscape. In a literary world hurtling towards the multiverse, there’s something grounding about narratives rooted in nature and infrastructure.
While they are separate stories, each featuring a protagonist from a different time and place, the novels benefit from being read as an ensemble. Duncan is a structural engineer by training, so measurement and materiality are leitmotifs, as are loneliness and displacement. His work is a study of masculinity, with its unique depiction of deeply feeling men in traditionally masculine work environments, including the dance between tenderness and violence underlying male camaraderie.
Until the emergence of satnavs in the 1980s, land was surveyed predominantly by triangulation – an imperfect science, particularly for “wavering bogland” that doesn’t lend itself to straight lines. Writing is its own kind of surveying – trying, however approximately, to take measure of the world, with all of its curvatures.
Lobachevsky imagines a surveying colleague as “trapped between two forces – his aim and the land’s indifference, both leading to a point where numbers end and where actual things can begin”. It’s an apposite image, whether one is parcelling out language or land.