A friend of mine described a short story in Adrian Duncan’s 2021 collection Midfield Dynamo as ‘like John McGahern with the humanity stripped out of it’. If you read McGahern’s works in chronological order you can see this humanity begin to edge out the harshness and repetition elsewhere, or at least begin to assert itself more often as a necessary opposite. The last line of McGahern’s last novel is essentially a pitch for a comprehensive transcendence or transformation, a conclusion which I once heard a relative describe as ‘too easy’.
The essential difference between McGahern and Duncan lies in the distinct nature of the labour depicted in their works. While McGahern’s is the world of the small farmer, what he referred to as the little Republics woven into self-sustaining rural communities, Duncan’s characters, particularly those engineers central to The Geometer Lobachevsky, are the vanguard of this world’s dissolution. An intuition in dialogue with geometry and mathematics is the more ambivalent route Duncan takes, as opposed to the seasons or natural world through which McGahern gains access to something beyond. Duncan does allow for a dignity, self-realisation or orientation becoming possible through work, but just as often it leads to failure, confusion or death.
The plot centres around a Russian geometer, Nikolai Lobachevsky, who travels to the Irish midlands in the fifties to assist a man named Rhatigan in surveying a bog. Lobachevsky attempts to explain how the uneven and mobile surface of the landscape complicates its mapping but the elaborate way in which he tries to do so fails and renders him an object of mockery in the area. Any social ties which arise in Lobachevsky’s movements from the midlands and out west seem uncertain and may well be artefacts of Lobachevsky turning over his daily routines in his mind, slipping out of his alienation in self-forgetfulness.
In a conversation with the architect Emmet Scanlon, Duncan described his research into Free State’s initial attempts at becoming a developmental state and this seems to represent a significant source of inspiration for The Geometer Lobachevsky. Electrification, Ardnacrusha and industrialised extraction of peat all significantly complicate that notion propagated by the postwar intelligentsia of the Free State, that Ireland was an ignorant, navel-gazing rural backwater. The acclaim Duncan’s works have secured to date has in large part to do with how unique themes such as state-formation and infrastructure are, not just in contemporary Irish literature but I think literature in general. Though I haven’t read nearly as much Russian literature as I would like to, I am totally unaware of any other work in which the ambivalence of being a technocrat in a specific post-revolutionary context is treated with this level of seriousness.
Means of securing buy-in from the existing administrators of Tsarism was a consistent problem for the Bolsheviks once the Russian proletariat had overthrown Kerensky’s Provisional Government, while in the Free State the situation was very different, there being a significant amount of continuity between Ireland under the British and the Free State. Cumann na nGaedhal, a pro-Treaty party whose social base was derived from large farmers and southern unionists, made no attempt to construct a state which might compete with British capitalism, but rather sought to faciliate it, committing itself to extreme fiscal rectitude to suppress domestic demand and subsidising large farmers who exported their agricultural products to Britain, effectively condeming the landless and labouring elements who had been most active in seeking to secure Irish independence during the Tan war to degredation, unemployment and emigration.
The continuity of British institutionality was maintained despite the large number of Irishmen already working in administrative roles; the main criticism voiced by senior civil servants was that their inherited system deviated too far from the British model. C.J. Gregg, a personal friend of William Cosgrave, was leased in from London’s Board of Inland Revenue to lead the committee which formulated the final recommendations for the Free State’s reorganised government. Gregg not only favoured retaining the title ‘The Treasury’ for the Department of Finance, but also attempted to secure a role for the Department over and above that of the elected cabinet. Just as the state enforced this regime from above it is important to remember that Local Appointments Boards dominated by the church hierarchy also played its role in stifling the emergence of a indigenous technocracy. In this way Irish professionals were oriented within a reformed Empire; the new establishment in which Rhatigan envisions himself has no need for qualifications or professionals, just intermediaries.
Nevertheless there are a number of premonitions of the coming order in which the state’s investments will become more international in character; old triangulations through which Ireland was mapped relative to Britain are being severed and the new ones will serve to lift Ireland three metres out of the sea. Rhatigan’s observation that ‘Accuracy’s children have devoured their parents’, channels Stephen Dedalus’ sow that eats her own farrow, an axiom that might be said to underpin the vast majority of historiography written on the post-revolutionary orders in both the USSR as well as the Irish Free State. I find Rhatigan’s phrasing of the issue more convincing; not just because it repudiates these clichés as well as Joyce’s Viconian perspective, but because it captures the pressures bearing down upon Ireland and their distance from historic Republic aspiration.
We also see the section of the state which remain as yet unsubsumed when Lobachevsky spends a period of time working with Irish speaking labourers harvesting seaweed. Lobachevsky is not invited to assist in the more involved aspects of their labour, or is only allowed to do so under close scrutiny, as though they fear, correctly, the steady erosion of their way of life. Lobachevsky actually witnesses a synecdoche of this process take place in overhearing a conversation as two people ‘speak for some moments in Irish with shreds of English weaved through…and the shreds of English grow into sentences that overcome the collapsing strings then atoms of Irish they were speaking’.
One significant difference between the way in which the Free State and the USSR is framed comes in the form of the representation of the Bolsheviks, who appear as thugs or boors, while the local enforcers of the Free State regime are absent. We have a representation of the Romanovs’ executions (whose barbarism went far, far beyond anything undertaken by the Soviets) and this at least emphasises the violence inherent in the changing of the guard; civil war legacies of summary executions, military tribunals and atrocities are mediated exclusively within a ‘brother against brother’ paradigm. Looking at the two political formations which arose out of the civil war we see that these divisions tended to fall far more along family and class lines rather than through them; the scenario represented in The Wind that Shakes the Barley is more the exception than the rule.
Threading the themes I’ve touched upon here will involve spoiling the ending of the novel, so I’ll conclude by saying that Duncan’s refusal to make things ‘too easy’, to turn away from the furrow he works towards the rising sun, is what makes his work so unique and essential. Read this book, and all his others.