Monday, July 19, 2010

The Deposition of Father McGreevy

I really had no idea about either Brian O'Doherty or about his 1999 novel The Deposition of Father McGreevy. I'm pretty sure the book was on one of those "customers who liked this book might like these other books" advertising sidebars on Amazon. As I got into it it was so far into the "Poor Mouth" aesthetic that I thought it might have been deliberately self-parodic, but cover blurbs by Frank Conroy, Jim Harrison and James McCourt confirmed that this is an earnest exercise in the more gothic (as in "Southern Gothic") mode of Irish literature - a melancholy terrain even at its sunniest, let alone frozen in the dark as it is here. (See earlier posts on Hard-Boiled and Crazy Irish.)

In this case we have an unnamed, Irish-speaking village, somewhere above a town in the mountains above the Kerry Peninsula, that is slowly dwindling to an end. The year is 1939. Father McGreevy faces the closing of his parish after 30 years among the villagers. He is well-intentioned but conservative and obtuse enough to fail them when they can no longer withstand the pressure of the outside world. He bears more responsibility for the calamities he recounts than he knows. Innocent people, as so often happens in Irish literature, are condemned to the worst kind of disgrace, lives thrown away, families destroyed.

So, of course, I liked it. Plowed on through once I got hooked. I enjoyed the occasional footnotes, mostly biographies of Irish notables who are glancingly mentioned in the text (although including them was kind of an odd decision). The writing is generally good, in the tough-guy realist style. The atmosphere is satisfyingly oppressive for the Irish literature enthusiast. It is, though, somewhat over the top and I recommend it for readers who are already enthusiasts of the Irish novel and/or hard-bitten tough-guy stuff. Don't hand this one over to Grandma until you've checked it out for yourself.

It was also a pleasure to learn more about Brian O'Doherty. O'Doherty, Roscommon-born, has had several distinguished careers, both as a sculptor and conceptual artist and as an executive in the USA for the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations. In 1972 he changed his name to Patrick Ireland to protest the "bloody Sunday" killings in Derry that year, and worked under that name until the peace accords of 2008. He comes to novel-writing late, but this one was nominated for the Booker. Very interesting and talented person.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Aravind Adiga's White Tiger

I'm trying not to be influenced by the blurbs (seven pages of them?) festooning my Free Press trade paperback first edition copy, complete with "Reading Group Guide," of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, winner of the 2008 Booker Prize. The book, a first novel by an Indian-born writer who has lived in Australia, Britain and the US, was predictably hyped to the stars. (I still take the Booker seriously and I always check out the books. Sad to say I pay no attention to the Nobel. The Booker is also politicized, not to mention parochial, but neither of those flaws necessarily means the books aren't good.) The comparison to Russian literature is inevitable, the blurbs mention Dostoevsky, Gogol and Gorky but Gary Shteyngart's excellent Absurdistan, the subject of an earlier post, came to my mind. Both books illuminate the extravagant excesses of globalization in Asia with the kind of black comedy that comes from righteous rage. Then I noticed that Shteyngart wrote one of the blurbs on the back cover - so did I think of Shteyngart on my own?

In an interview published at the end of the book Adiga mentions the excoriating, sulphorous African-American novels of the mid-20th century: Ellison, Baldwin and Wright. Going with that I would mention contemporary African fiction as one of the most active venues of the alienated man. Another post here discusses the Nigerian El Nukoya's Nine Lives, a book with close similarities to this one.

Anyway, news flash, the book is really good. It is indeed "compulsively readable." It's angry and funny - "satire" is the technical term. It's a fast read and part of its spell is the way Adiga puts everything out on the surface as we fast-forward along through the life story of Balram Halwai, the twisted and unreliable narrator. He has asserted his humanity through transgression, which is a fine old existential theme in itself, but the real game (as in the 19th century Russian novel) is to persuade the reader that the societal pressures (notably the economic and political ones) on the anti-protagonist make his transgressions understandable, and to at least entertain the idea that they may be, as the antihero himself believes, justifiable.

In this case the target is the surreal disparity of wealth in turn-of-the-century India. The workers building luxurious condominiums live in fetid slums next door. Justice is for sale and the rich not only flout the law but openly pawn the lives of their servants, who fear not only for themselves but their families; to be a servant even to the well-meaning rich is to be held hostage mafia-style. To top the situation off, this clearly untenable circumstance is directly tied to the identification of the wealthy professional class with the West, very conspicuously the English-speaking West. Demagogic populists, meanwhile, are winning elections. "Someday the brown-skinned and yellow-skinned people will be in charge," fulminates the murderously angry narrator, "and then heaven help the rest of you." The message is made more pointed by the writer's lucid and sardonic understanding that the beast within is the same as the beast without.

But it's also really funny. If it wasn't it wouldn't work. It's a book that may even be around for the long term, so masterful is the blending of real provocation with fine black humor.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Babylon Down Under

David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (1993) is the first novel I've read by this Australian writer, but it won't be the last (there is quite a buzz around his latest, The Great World, so that will go in the Stack). Malouf, who has published eight novels, is also a working poet and his prose is interesting, original and stylish without feeling overwritten. For a reader already impressed with the quality of contemporary Australian literature discovering Malouf is not a revelation, just a confirmation of the great vitality of the Australian literary stage. He is certainly squarely in this tradition, focused on the confrontation with nature and the Other, and on the experience of displacement and violence, that are instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with Australian literature and cinema.

Remembering Babylon
is the story of Gemmy Fairley, the lowest of the low of London street urchins, accidentally set to sea and then marooned at the age of thirteen to spend sixteen years living with the aborigines whose language and way of life he adopts. The novel concentrates on his experience after stumbling out of the bush and taking up life with Scottish settlers in a remote highland area of Queensland. Gemmy is something of an idiot savant, damaged from a life of suffering but possessed of rare knowledge, kind and gentle but an inevitably disruptive presence.

In fact Malouf's real interest is in the Scottish settlers and their responses to Gemmy as a symbol, or really an incarnation, of the outback. The tension builds as settlers polarize into those who would launch genocidal attacks on the "blacks" and those who, to say as much as can be said, wouldn't. The situation is a familiar one and the reader is engaged by the drift towards a violent climax, but Malouf is a serious artist and artfully defies the expectations he has invited.

I should mention the treatment of the bee dance as analogy: the apiary-keepers know that the bees must communicate information somehow, but they don't know how the bees do it. Aborigines (excuse me, I have no personal experience of Australia and confess I don't know if "aborigine" is a term in acceptable political form) have ancient systems for learning about places, a product of long history traversing large areas (there is a good discussion of this in Bruce Chatwin's Songlines). Gemmy has some insight into aboriginal sense of place, but it is so alien to the Scottish, who come from an urban environment of coal mines and tenements, as to be quite literally invisible to them (just as Gemmy makes them disappear, for him, by ignoring them). I liked the way Malouf revealed just enough of this: like a blues guitarist who only plays a few, well-expressed notes.

Malouf is a first-class writer and I look forward to reading more of his work.