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The Geometer Lobachevsky — mapping out the mind’s eye

Engineering has not been one of literature’s great muses, but for Adrian Duncan — a Berlin-based Irish writer, visual artist and former structural engineer — it is central to his spare, affecting novels.

Duncan’s 2019 debut, Love Notes from a German Building Site, revolves around Paul, a thirty-something-year-old engineer on an Alexanderplatz construction site, while in his second, A Sabbatical in Leipzig, from 2020, we accompany Michael, a retired bridge engineer, on his daily rituals in Bilbao. Duncan’s most recent novel, The Geometer Lobachevsky, is narrated by Nikolai, sent by the Soviet state to the British Isles to further his expertise in calculus.

All that is to say, Duncan’s books are not really about engineering at all. Rather, his narrators filter his novels through a particular way of seeing, one defined by an acute sensitivity to patterns and structures of meaning. They are more wisdom-seeking philosophers than high-vis-wearing surveyors, measuring their inner topographies as much as those around them.

The Geometer Lobachevsky follows a simple, well-defined plot arc. The year is 1950, and Nikolai is surveying a bog in the Irish Midlands. On receiving an ominous summons to return home, he escapes to an island on the Shannon estuary, where he contemplates his status as an exile, plagued by a resolve to see his family’s faces once again.

The unruly coastal environment reinforces his sense of in-between-ness. In one illustrative scene, Nikolai sees a white gannet whose wings are “magical extensions lifting and returning the veil of the world, and what I am looking on is not flight, but suspension between worlds, neither of which I can quite seem to glimpse”. Around him dunes rise and fall, he hears the “astonished breath” of the sea — the Earth is respiring. This is a climate whose permanent state is one of flux, where humanity and geology are forever reinventing themselves.

The melancholic, drifting prose of Duncan’s earlier novels has earned him comparisons to German émigré author WG Sebald, whose books Geoff Dyer once described as having a “posthumous quality” to them; this is also true of The Geometer Lobachevsky. Nikolai narrates from “here”, though his words seem shadowed by an unnamed “there”.

As Nikolai describes hearing the “clopping footsteps” of his colleagues working in the bog, I couldn’t help but read this as an echo of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the gruelling gulag life that Nikolai had arbitrarily avoided back home in the Soviet Union. Incidentally, 1950 is also the year Solzhenitsyn began his sentence in a Kazakhstan labour camp.

The Geometer Lobachevsky is a filmic — if not filmable — work. Nikolai’s specialised perception is uncanny, strange and exquisite, akin to the Mitteleuropean fictions of László Krasznahorkai and Milan Kundera; he describes a local bar as “quietly hosting the last few billion rays of the day’s sun”. Shape, orientation, scale — these are the tools Nikolai employs to parse the inscrutable syntax of the world around him. Engineering and literature, in Duncan’s skilled and sensitive hands, make for quite the couple.

The Geometer Lobachevsky by Adrian Duncan, Serpent’s Tail £14.99, 208 pages

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