The Geometer Lobachevsky by Adrian Duncan review – an atmospheric tableau

This tale of a Soviet mathematician working in rural 50s Ireland is bogged down by a lack of narrative impetus

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.

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