Schopenhauer's Telescope opens simply enough, with a man digging a hole and another man standing over him, watching. It is snowing heavily, and the light of the afternoon is failing. The reasons for their being in this position and the nature of their relationship,are not immediately clear. None the less, the reader is interested in discovering the meaning for this almost absurdist situation. Hazy details emerge as the novel unfolds: this is somewhere in Europe and the backdrop is war and conflict. Such vagueness is a necessary asset, for this story strives toward a universality unbound by either time or space. In the circumstances, it is wholly appropriate.
The two men begin to talk. Moments from the past are dwelt upon: moments, that underpin the cruelty and destruction that humans can inflict on one another. They role-play, they mimic, they creatively imagine the past, all in an attempt to come to some understanding about the evil that men do. Thus, the reader is presented with, among other things. a mock-documentary about Genghis Khan and a television news report about the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe. There are, too, digressions into "snow" and "wind", for instance. There is also one, in the mode of Flann Brien's meditations on molecules, which considers the properties of holes.
Much of this is entertaining, certainly early on. However, there is serious intent in the author's manoeuvrings. What materialises in this prolonged debate Is opposing conceptions of history. Is history the accumulation of facts and figures? Is it concerned with mapping the actions of the crowd and the exceptional individual, or can we connect with the past through ordinary experience as lived? The question ultimately faced by these two men - as individuals who have the power to take responsibility for their actions - is an ethical one.
Gerard Donovan is a thrice-published poet, and he brings a poet's eye and sensibility to language and detail to this, his first novel. His characters' concerns with the powers of narrative, and with of knowledge and its application, are shared by the author, who attempts to manufacture a modern myth.
It is at the level of form that reservations can he raised about Schopenhauer's Telescope. So much emphasis is placed on these two men as mouthpieces for ideas that some essential empathy is lost. Like a Socratic dialogue, the outcome of the argument, undoubtedly fluid at the beginning, seems predetermined as the novel comes to the close.
However, it is refreshing in a world so full of post-modern ironic indifference that Donovan is prepared to have something to say and not merely content to amuse. At a time when. the world seems more violent than ever, when history becomes a utilitarian tool to justify any position one could, care to imagine, a novel that focuses on the dilemma of the individual response to these concerns is a novel to be read.
[ Derek Hand is a Lecturer In English in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra. His book, John Banville: Exploring Fictions, was published by the Liffey Press last year. ]