The Geometer Lobachevsky
“The Geometer Lobachevsky is required reading for the Anthropocene”
Though Adrian Duncan’s new novel, The Geometer Lobachevsky, takes on the ecological consequences of modernity, ‘climate fiction’ would reduce the scope of its intellectual project. Drawing on his backgrounds in both the visual arts and structural engineering, Duncan maps human logics and systems of order – agriculture, industry, language, consciousness itself – to explore how are variously intertwined with, or exceeded by, the natural world which they seek to understand or manipulate. Though often intensely technical and analytic, Lobachevsky is equally attentive to the frail humans who (cannot) contain such creative, destructive desires to ‘gouge their stories into the earth.’
The novel follows the intellectual and spiritual journey of mid-century Soviet geometer Nikolai Lobachevsky as he moves through rural Irish landscapes on the cusp of electrification and industrialisation; first an accomplice, and then a witness to the struggle between these ‘troublesome lands’ and the new state’s modernising, rationalising efforts. Part I follows Lobachevsky’s disillusion and existential dread in the bogs of the midlands, where he advises on one of many abortive efforts to accurately triangulate bogland for drainage and peat extraction. Though Lobachevsky knows the bog’s defiance of ‘Euclidian rigidity’ makes such an exercise impossible, his larger intellectual disillusionment has immobilised him; the rupture between ‘numbers and real things,’ between “what I could see in geometrics and what I could not see in its distant algebraic form was a blind spot… a sense of lack that slowly eroded my person.” When nature overmasters their project in a terrifying sequence, their Euclidian logics become “useless shapes dangling wantonly in groundless air.”
Haunted, Lobachevsky escapes to an estuary island, living among the dying branches of the island’s traditional seaweed-farming family trees. Here, human genealogies and industries entwine with ecology; amidst the island’s flora and headstones, Lobachevsky develops a new mode of engagement which recognises the incommensurability of dominance with understanding. He instructs us to look to the Mesolithic standing stone, “an object that used the sun to orient itself across the land and into the shape of its reverence.” Lobachevsky’s evolution is beautifully contraposed with islander Paulie Óg’s parallel tragedy of nature and human desire.
Part III follows the political implications of these systems, indicting the ‘engulfing indifference’ of the Irish and Soviet states, which share the extractive, ahistorical logics of modernity; their “future that can only be won by computing horse-power… doesn’t belong in the realm of good people.” In Duncan’s hands this connection is provocative rather than minimizing, but ultimately his treatment of the Soviet system is cursory, reliant on shorthand. Moreover, Lobachevsky’s development, and the questions animating it, drive the plot more effectively than the Damocles of his Soviet purging. Despite a vivid detour into magical realist critique, Parts III and IV are comparatively less satisfying because they consummate this would-be dramatic tension, rather than Lobachevsky’s already-concluded arc.
This unevenness aside, The Geometer Lobachevsky remains a beautifully crafted synthesis of intellectual athleticism and aesthetic originality. Duncan schematises the many overlapping, entwining and diverging systems – organic and mechanical – which structure our reality with both rigor and quiet tenderness. It is required reading for the Anthropocene.
Words: Pádraig Nolan