Adrian Duncan – The Geometer Lobachevsky
In the early 1950s, Soviet mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky travels to Ireland to help his old colleague Rhatigan with a land survey. The men work side by side, intimate yet oddly estranged. When Lobachevksy receives a letter summoning him to an urgent “appointment” in Leningrad, he bolts to a remote island, harvesting seaweed for local farmers while reflecting on his past. Can he start a life in exile, or will nostalgia lure him towards a dangerous homecoming? The Geometer Lobachevsky (Lilliput) is an impressive new novel by Irish Berliner Adrian Duncan. It might sound like a thriller, but it’s actually a tender, thoughtful, often startlingly beautiful piece of literary fiction. Duncan brings new insight to his trademark preoccupations – men, work, emigration, construction – and explores the desire to create meaning in an unmasterable world. Lobachevsky and Rhatigan are both fascinating characters. But the star of the novel is its unforgettable setting: the strange rocky island, and that shifting, squelchy bog where language slips and fixed ideas fall apart.
Daniel Mendelsohn – Three Rings
Exile, home and creativity also run through Daniel Mendelsohn’s expert nonfiction work Three Rings (NYRB). Mendelsohn, a Jewish-American literary critic and Classics scholar, is perhaps best known for a memoir about his father and Homer’s Odyssey. He is also something of a Germanist – has lived in Berlin, and is a prominent anglosphere champion of Theodor Fontane. Three Rings shows Mendelsohn at his most learned and most engaging. What begins with a meditation on Homer (who else?) opens up into a fascinating meditation on storytelling, “ring narration” and the literary art of digression. Three exiled writers – the 17th-century French archbishop François Fénelon, the Jewish-German philologist Erich Auerbach and the German-British novelist W.G. Sebald – share the stage with the author and his family in a wide-ranging, genuinely insightful work. Mendelsohn combines memoir, criticism and formal experimentation with great poise. His book is an artisan product: short, skilfully constructed, and of a lasting quality.
Bénédicte Savoy – Africa’s Struggle For Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat
Now to the history shelf, with Bénédicte Savoy’s Africa’s Struggle For Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat (Princeton). Savoy, a French art historian based in Berlin, is a leading expert on the ethics of postcolonial ownership.
She was originally an advisor to the Humboldt Forum but quit, saying the Forum was “like Chernobyl”. In this book, Savoy delves into the history behind the headlines of today’s restitution debates. Her chronological narrative of the years 1965- 1985 focuses on the failed attempts of newly independent African nations to have their art returned from Europe: “Nearly every conversation today about the restitution of cultural property to Africa already happened forty years ago.” Using archival sources, she reconstructs the arrogance and trickery of many post-war Western institutions; the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz comes off particularly poorly. To Savoy, Europe’s refusal to return the stolen treasure was not just an outrage: it was a missed opportunity to look towards the future and begin a new ethical relationship with Africa. One hopes that contemporary Germany doesn’t make the same mistake.