John Banville's biographical novel about one of history's most important astronomers is unusual in that it says very little about astronomy. It is more concerned with the personality of Copernicus, the world in which he lived, and the medieval concepts of science and truth.
Nicolas Koppernigk was raised in ethnically German surroundings in a part of Prussia that had only recently given its allegiance to the King of Poland. Though his Polish father was only a tradesman, Nicolas was related on his Prussian mother's side to a powerful clergyman, his uncle, who undertook to raise Nicolas and his three siblings when their parents died. Nicolas was, therefore, destined for the clergy, but this also meant an opportunity for the brilliant youth to obtain a university education in Italy.
Nicolas was intoxicated by the liberal intellectual atmosphere of Renaissance Italy, but repulsed by the sensuality and moral laxity of the Italian clergy. Taking his degree and the title of "Doctor Copernicus," it was with few regrets that he returned to the colder, sterner climate of the Baltic to assume his duties as a church canon. His native land was still very much medieval in its mores, its social structures, and its values.
As canon, Copernicus was not an ordained priest, but was required to live and work where and as directed by his chapter. He was also required to follow the same rule of celibacy as a priest. His assignments reflected the breadth of his university education, and included everything from providing medical care to administering a city during time of war.
Banville is surprisingly obscure on when, how, and why young Nicolas came to question the idea of an Earth-centered universe. Even before he goes to Italy, there is mention of his bold ideas about astronomy, but not precisely what those ideas were or how they came to him. While Nicolas was still a teenager, his contemporaries knew he was developing a theory that the Earth and planets revolved around the sun. Yet his book on the subject was not published until the year of his death, at age 70, in 1543--and even then apparently against his will. Copernicus's lifelong reticence was based in part on his overpowering modesty, but also on his fear of offending the Church and provoking a vengeful reaction. Apparently it was safe for his ideas to travel Europe as rumor, but it could be fatal to put them in print.
What emerges literally from the astronomer's deathbed is the distinction between truth and reality. Copernicus believed his theory to be true insofar as it was a mechanism that made it possible to predict the future motions of the planets and to develop a more accurate calendar. But whether it represented reality was something he did not claim and seriously doubted.
In rich prose, John Banville gives us a sympathetic portrait of a a man and his time--though both the man and the time are unattractively severe. One segment of the novel is a narration by Georg Joachim Rheticus, a young student who forced himself upon the aging Copernicus and eventually coaxed his master into releasing his manuscript for publication. Rheticus's pompous, spiteful, and obviously unreliable narrative not only provides some welcome levity, but underscores the treacherous nature of the historical record. Whether Banville's interpretation of Copernicus is accurate is something we will never know, but there is much to appreciate in his depiction of a scientist's mind struggling in a world dominated by faith and tradition.