Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bloody Footnote: Thomas Flanagan's "The Year of the French"

I heard about Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French (1979) from some list or other of "100 Best Irish Novels." Turns out that Flanagan is an Irish-American, the Irish have a charming (I find) penchant for simply appropriating any American culture that is Irish enough to the mother country. Hey Ireland: feel free to appropriate me at any time!

Anyway, here we have a fictionalization of the French invasion of Ireland in 1798. A larger force tried to land in 1796 but was turned back by adverse winds. In 1798 Napoleon also was invading Egypt. Wolfe Tone and the French general Humbert extracted promises from the Directory that a larger force would follow if the first invasion achieved success with a popular uprising, but that never materialized. It's tempting to speculate about what might have happened if the French had managed to drive the English off of the island, but on reflection I doubt that the English would ever have given up the fight to retain colonial control over Ireland, or could ever have lost it.

It was a sideshow to the Napoleonic wars, and a pathetic one at that. The Irish had not, and perhaps could not have, achieved the level of military and political organization needed to drive off the English and keep them off. Humbert ended thinking that the Irish were a rabble who deserved the genocidal massacres that followed the rebellion (he and his French soldiers were repatriated under the "rules of honorable warfare"; the Irish peasant fighters were cut down unmercifully, and against the orders of the supreme English commander Cornwallis, their leaders tarred, hanged, and their bodies left on the gibbet to rot).

But Wolfe Tone and Jean-Joseph Humbert worked tirelessly to obtain a small army from the Directory to try to spread the revolution. Humbert gambled that with victory in Ireland he might show up the vainglorious Napoleon with his mad Egyptian adventure. It would be easy to dismiss this book as masculinist literature, with its fictionalization of desperate military campaigns written at the level of the technical maneuvers of field officers, but that would be an unjust error. One of the main points of the book is that professional officers, if they might survive the barrages of the field, had little in common with the peasant boys whom they swept up in their campaigns. Indeed, an honorable end to a campaign from an officer's point of view required a considerable sacrifice of men. The sensibility is reminiscent of Tolstoy's War and Peace (written almost a century after the events it immortalizes), another novel of intellectual learning and one where my standard jape has been "it's better at the war than at the peace."

When, after finishing the novel (never read an introduction before reading a novel!), I read Seamus Deane's introduction my New York Review Books paperback edition, I was taken aback to read that the novel was made into a TV-movie in the 1980s on the basis of its' supposed illustration of the violence and futility of Republican militancy. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a searing indictment of English rule, a stand-out in an immense genre that is obsessed with little else.

But this is far from a war novel alone. It is an immensely learned disquisition on the social and political circumstances of Ireland at the end of the 18th century. It is inevitably somewhat didactic - if you have no intrinsic interest in Irish history you ought not to be here - but it is rich in character and with a deep humanity that reflects years of immersion in the subject combined with a writer's detachment that few might sustain. There are quite a few representative characters - Protestant gentry, landed Catholics, clergymen, rebels, riffraff and heroes. An obvious favorite of the author is Owen McCarthy, Irish-language poet, itinerant teacher, womanizer, brawler and drunkard, famous throughout the Irish-speaking population for his verses but just another bog-trotting paddy to the English. It's good to see a character come to life and start to walk off with the author's book. And there are a good half-dozen other characters who are nearly as finely wrought.

Flanagan went on to add two more novels to make an historical trilogy, The Tenants of Time (1988) and The End of the Hunt(1994), on the strength of this one I'll try the next. Highly recommended, one of the best historical novels I've read. I have to add that while I was reading this G. threw me a bookmark from her extensive collection, this one from the "America's Disabled Veterans": "If you think you can't/ You really must/ In God and our soldiers/ Please keep the trust/...With luck and joy be/ With all who know/ That what you reap,/ Is what you sow." Incredible!

Let me also salute the series New York Review Books Classics, one of the best republishing efforts in the USA in the past 50 years.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

El-Nukoya's "Nine Lives": The Ghost of Nigeria Present

I don't remember how I spotted El-Nukoya's novel Nine Lives (2006; ANA/Jacaranda Prize, 2007). I think I was looking at some Nigerian fiction at Amazon and it came up as a "customers who have bought x might like y" suggestion. It's very important for a serious reader to be willing to explore, to invest in chance suggestions, references and even books that just have covers that look interesting (a reason for bookstores in an age when one can get every book that one knows that one wants on-line).

"El-Nukoya" is a Yoruban/Arabic phrase meaning "to select," as in the right path of life, but the cover art promises noirish underground adventure and the novel delivers. It's a neat trick, and a classic one, that the author has here: in the end El-Nukoya's book is critical and moralistic, but I mean at the very end as in the last page or so of this 490-page page-turner. Are all the juicy bits just a vehicle for the underlying evangelism, or is the evangelist moral a useful justification for giving us hundreds of pages of juicy bits? Only El-Nukoya knows for sure. In any event this first novel also shrewdly aims for a middle-brow audience that likes the sort of action that one finds in genre novels (racy romance for the ladies, tough-guy stuff for the guys).

The inescapable trope of African fiction is the bildungsroman, as African characters must suffer and, if they are among those to prevail, learn to be tough. Here we have the story of Olupitan Ogunrinu, smart and talented but out of the village, and his treacherous and tortured, if relentless and fantastic, rise to the top of Nigerian society. At first I wasn't sure of this rough novel, with its' numerous typos and its' somewhat wooden prose, but I ended charmed by it, a real potboiler with lots of sex and intrigue including all sorts of misbehavior from the feckless and disloyal Olupitan. He is a soul in danger, and his devilish compacts seem to damn him. He squanders his poor father's money by flunking out of college and decamping to the US, abandoning his family for years, and even worse things; a bit of business with a religious totem is a grave enough transgression that I thought the whole story would eventually turn on it, but nothing, it seems, is beyond redemption if we turn to God.

An obvious comparison is with Chris Abani, whose Graceland (2004) is the subject of an earlier post here. Abani, the author of several novels, is more technically accomplished than El-Nukoya, but his subject is the corruption of modern Nigerian society. El-Nukoya is deeply involved with this reality as well, of course, but he is more turned inward, and the real issue is the confrontation of the protagonist with his own strengths and weaknesses. For Abani, who writes from exile in California (and who was a victim of political torture in his homeland), Nigeria is stigmatized; El-Nukoya (who also studied in the US) makes it very clear that from his point of view the US, say, or anywhere else is no more safe from sin than Nigeria.

Abani is interesting to an American reader because of his interest in the cultural intersection of the two worlds. El-Nukoya stays tightly focused on his hero's misadventures during the American section and we are not served up any real impressions of that country. This may reflect some prudence on the part of an author who is already dealing with a densely-plotted narrative that spans decades and has dozens of characters. On the other hand there is lots of texture and atmosphere in the Nigerian passages, particularly the ones set in the world of the urban college students.

The most accomplished aspect of Nine Lives, though, is the limning of the little-boy-lost character of Oliputan. He makes bad decisions based on worse judgements, caves in to many of his own most craven weaknesses, and does many good people wrong, but the reader never comes to see him as the bad guy. He forms an obsession of hatred for an upper-class rival and cultivates this resentment for years, but the moral is clear enough that the weight is his to give up. At the same time he is a fantasy character, improbably endowed with an irresistible attraction for women and with the talent to become one of the wealthiest men in the country, only on the condition that he transgress his dignity in the pursuit of the initial capital: your basic hip-hop story.

Anyway I'm glad I encountered this book, it has whet my appetite for some more recent Nigerian fiction. From some subsequent googling around I think I'll try the Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma's Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, the Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop's Murambi Book of Bones, and the Nigerian Chimamanda Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. A serious reader ought to be a sucker for a good title: another way to find something good.