- 05 Apr 22
Our Man In Ferbane
Even if you’d missed his first two novels, Duncan’s brilliant collection of short stories, Midfield Dynamo, displayed an imagination and talent worthy of notice. I still wonder what was going on with those towers in the forest or the house in ‘Design No. 108’.
Duncan’s stories had quite a few engineering tricks and conundrums – he trained as a structural engineer and in his 'About The Weight Of A Bucket of Salt', Vincent is drawn to the art piece as much "by the centrifugal quietness of this metal and sodium" as its aesthetic qualities - alongside the literary flourishes, and both those approaches are present here. Soviet mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky is helping Bord na Móna out with some surveying in the early 1950s, about twenty miles south of Birr, not much of a march from the part of the world that Flann O’Brien used as his model for hell, or at least purgatory, in The Third Policeman.
Nikolai could have been headed for a similar Groundhog Day-style roundabout - he gets drunk, steers around the naked ban an tí at the end of his bed, improvises lightning rods, and visits the museum of local man, French – until he receives a letter calling him back home from the Ministry of State Security. This may be as a result of calling the party “poorly transformed peasants” in front of his loyal brother-in-law, or maybe it’s because of his love for Matvei, a screenwriter killed on a train from Moscow to Leningrad.
Either way, he decides not to go back, and after a period of running around London after a fake passport, hides out on an island in the Shannon, harvesting seaweed, practising his geometry, casting a Chekhovian ear at the local approach to language, and visiting a similarly exiled dog on a neighbouring islet.
If ever there was a time to be publishing a novel with Russians doing bad things and a Ukrainian telling stories of “unbelievable hardships” then this is probably it, but it’s Duncan’s originality and skill as a story teller – especially in the second half of this book as the action leaves the island – that deserve the kudos. The reader might think, the odd time, that there isn’t an awful lot going on here, as Duncan’s man observes – quite beautifully on occasion – the landscape and the inhabitants of the Midlands and then the river island, where his otherness, as evidenced by the pub scene where he takes it upon himself to construct a three-dimensional model, separates him from the natives. When the tone shifts dramatically towards the end of the book, however, and we’re taken back/forward to the start, it sets you thinking afresh about what has gone before.
Mathematics - the realm of the geometrician - is precise and orderly; there is, as our teachers used to tell us, only the one right answer. Language is a different, more porous, and more deceptive thing altogether. The Geometer Lobachevsky is quite the literary trick, delivered with precision engineering.