Thursday, March 19, 2009

Crazy Irish

Happy Day-After-St. Patrick's-Day. I wanted to post about Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture (2008) yesterday, but it's a really good book and I didn't want to rush finishing it. Besides, considering that St. Patrick's Day for most people is seen as an opportunity to drink too much beer - the very worst interpretation of the meaning of the festival one could have, so far as I can see - maybe the "day after" is appropriate enough in itself.

Last St. Patrick's Day I posted about "Hard Boiled Irish," discussing a number of novels that reflected the deep root of noir sensibility that permeates modern Irish fiction. This year, and on the occasion of reading The Secret Scripture, I'll mention some books that develop another defining motif: Irish madness, or more precisely the fact that lives of unrelenting hardship, injustice and poverty inevitably break people. We meet a lot of broken souls in Irish fiction. Both the past and the present weigh on the characters with a weight that is just too much for everyone to bear. Women, and particularly mothers in this most conflicted of Catholic nations, are frequently found among these walking wounded.

In Barry's novel (that is set in the present) the issue is confronted directly, as it is an epistolary book in the form of alternating entries from the private journals of Dr. William Grene, head psychiatrist at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, and Roseanne McNulty, who at 100 years old has been an inmate (definitely the proper word) in the system for over 60 years, transferred to RRMH in 1957 at the closing of the old "lunatic asylum" in Sligo (there are nice descriptions of this remote part of Ireland's west coast by the way). Now RRMH, itself grown decrepit, is slated for demolition and Dr. Grene must decide what to do with the remaining, mostly quite elderly, residents. Part of his charge is to investigate the circumstances of the original admission of these old people into the system, as consciousness has been raised about the fact that some were placed there for what are delicately called "social" reasons and there is public sentiment that any remaining such people ought to be released. In the case of the 100-year-old Roseanne her birth circa 1908 means that she was a young woman during the fight for Irish independence and the subsequent civil war, an era possessed of an abundance of cruelty and treachery. Barry is a keen student of Irish history and we are in good hands as he weaves the politics and violence of the period into the narrative.

Roseanna is writing her own autobiographical account of her early years, hiding them under the floorboards of her room. She is unbroken and wants to defend herself, also she wants to try to remember events that have been dimmed by the years as well as by trauma, and ultimately indeed wants to leave a testament to be read, although she is not admitting quite so much to herself. The vagueness and unreliability of memories and documents from seventy and eighty years ago is a literal way to establish the moral ambiguity of actions and intentions, a familiar literary device but one that Barry deploys artfully and to good effect.

The bare bones of the story are quite typical and not necessarily promising: the beautiful young woman who, through a combination of failed parents who come to bad ends, indiscretions that would be barely noticed today, and the machinations of vindictive and small-minded people in positions of power, is cast out of society and eventually packed of to the madhouse. Central to this is Father Gaunt, the standard-issue Evil Priest of Irish fiction, whose own account of Roseanne's commitment is the only extended document that Dr. Grene can find in the ancient moldering records. It is Father Gaunt's bigotry (Roseanne is Presbyterian), misogyny (he despises beautiful young women as embodiments of carnality), and arrogance (he feels perfectly entitled to his position as God's agent in small-town Sligo) that are the immediate causes of Roseanne's undoing. Typical as all this may be for the genre, I am not going to go into the various twists and turns of this Dickensian narrative that dishes out equal measures of the inevitable and the improbable and makes for quite a page-turner when all is said and done. Once I was halfway through it I didn't want to put it down.

One thing I got to thinking this week, when we have seen the return of mindless violence to Northern Ireland from pathetic boys posing as the mythical "hard men" of their macho imaginations, is this contradiction: the Irish bohemian intelligentsia tend to be, like myself, republicans. The worst historical figure is Cromwell, the worst 20th century bad guys are the Black and Tans. But at the same time the relationship to the priesthood is entirely conflicted (or not even: in Irish literature the priesthood is generally bad). Maybe this is a clue to eventual reunification: the conflict is at its roots economic and political, not religious. Thus the Protestant majority of the North might come around to voting for reunification (and their continued political resistance is the only thing in the way at this point).

Anyway, let me conclude with a short overview of some other "Irish Crazy" books. The mother driven mad by hardship related to political conflict is prominent in William Trevor's Fools of Fortune (1983) and Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark (1996), while men damaged by history are the subjects of John McGahern's Amongst Women (1990) and Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea (2005). Lone madmen whose pathologies are stand-ins for pathologies of Irish identity are the narrators of the great John Banville's The Book of Evidence (1989) and Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy (1992). Joyce's Modernist development of interior monologue (Molly Bloom being only the most notorious example) is an obvious influence on virtually all of Irish letters, but if we're talking just plain crazy there's no greater well-spring than Beckett and his Trilogy that is required Irish reading notwithstanding that he wrote it in French. Two other giants who ought to be mentioned if the topic is the relationship between deprivation and madness are Flann O'Brien and his The Poor Mouth (written in Irish, An Beal Bocht) (1941), and the greatest of Anglo-Irish writers, my biggest Irish hero after Joyce, Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver's Travels (1726) and A Modest Proposal (1729) are mad works written by a man made mad by the Irish condition, in every sense of the word "mad."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Chukwuemeka Ike's Wheel

The Potter's Wheel (1973) is the first novel I've read by the Nigerian Chukwuemeka Ike. He has written quite a few (I gather that Toads for Supper is his best known work) and I'll get back around to him sometime. It's a short novel that takes us in to a village Nigeria where one of the basic elements of the local idiom is sayings, much like a Bible-based community where people communicate through chapter and verse citations. Here the young boys have riddle and proverb contests to see who knows the most. They are at times convoluted and cryptic ("The rat who follows a lizard into the river should come out with skin as dry as the lizard's"), but after a while the cumulative weight of them is fun in itself.

The story is a simple one of an eight-year-old boy, Ubo, who, as the only son with six older sisters, has been badly spoiled by his adoring mother. His father, a kindly man but fearing for the boy's future, sends him off for a year to be a servant of Teacher and Madam, proprietors of the local school (a mere sixty miles away), where he and an assortment of other youngsters (some of whom are the children of Teacher's debtors) are beaten, abused, and work in semi-slavery. The moral of the story is ambiguous, however. While Teacher and Madam are clearly greedy, violent people with no scruples about lying and being dangerously cruel to the children, after a year of this Obu returns for Christmas and has indeed been transformed into a dutiful, hardworking young person. Despite his initial joy at his salvation from what he had experienced as an almost unbearable hell, after some talk with his father he even chooses to voluntarily return in January.

I can't quite work out in my own conscience the balance here between the idea that a child needs to learn to endure hardship and adapt to difficult circumstances, which is surely true, and my aversion to corporal punishment of children (I am a parent myself), especially the gratuitously cruel treatment that these children receive. There is some culture clash here between author and reader. Ike is telling us about a much harder, crueler (that is, poorer) world than my own so that is part of it.

Meanwhile as in so much African literature there is constant interplay between the (in this case Igbo) vernacular and the English language (and a glossary of terms at the end). Another ubiquitous element is the discussion of food which I found fascinating. Various roots and starchy fruits are pounded into mash that is shaped into balls and dipped into herb broths; that is the basic food. There is occasional meat that is much coveted, fried termites that are considered a treat, and great attention is paid to the cola nut that plays an important role in etiquette between hosts and visitors. I'm going to look into growing cola here in Puerto Rico where I have a number of fruit trees on my land. I also enjoyed the critical, sarcastic banter that is kept up between Igbo villagers who have known each other all their lives. There is an optimism and an innocence to much of the African writing of this period that belies the stereotype of the African novel as a politicized horrorshow (even as Ike does include some pointed satire of the British colonial authorities and their native lackeys).