Saturday, October 4, 2008

Seamus Deane

Seamus Deane, born in Derry, is a professor of literature at Notre Dame. He is the author of several critical studies of Irish literature (among other scholarly works) and several volumes of poetry. In 1996, at the age of 56, he caused a minor sensation in the world of Irish letters with the publication of his first novel, Reading in the Dark. I confess that when I bought my Vintage paperback copy and added it to the Stack, the title and what I knew of Deane led me to believe that it would be something along the lines of a literary memoir or maybe a novel about a young Irishman reading (in the dark); I had tried to track down a copy of his out-of-print A Short History of Irish Literature (another book Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature is still available).

As it turns out this is not a novel about the sort of young man who reads much, although the protagonist's reading habits are not mentioned. His family definitely wouldn't encourage a lot of time for education, and particularly not about the family past. A twisted past it is, full of violence and betrayals stemming from the Troubles. I won't go into the specifics that hold up the labyrinth of shame and loathing that imprisons the family of the unnamed narrator, the plot (that is, the story of dark deeds of the past slowly and incompletely revealed) is interesting and complex but the real business of the novel is not to entertain us with lurid story but rather to meditate on the costs of collective and individual guilt to generations of families. The young boy himself is set up one day by a sadistic police sergeant who drives him around deliberately making him look like an informer, a casual bit of malice that blights the boy's life for years, but this is far from the worst of it for him and his already-marginalized family. Even when the sergeant returns years later to tearfully apologize the emotional atmosphere barely registers this ripple of contrition. The burdens of the past, and the lies that past forces on the boy's family, are much worse.

For that matter, the deep dark family secrets themselves are never revealed exhaustively. That too would be beside the point, as these people have suffered not from their own decisions but from the dark current of injustice that has maimed not only them, the "guilty" ones, but everyone else in their hopeless, paranoid community. Even the dignity of family loyalty is denied to the exploited and the poor.

The writing, meanwhile, is first-class, sustaining a lyrical tone and keeping the narrative focused on the gradual unravelling of history. It is a novel that does not wander one pace away from the story. Using the boy's relationship with his emotionally shattered mother as a broad, unifying allegory of his Irish Catholic identity makes for elegant symbolism, one of the hardest things to do in a socially-conscious novel. Very satisfying.

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