Saturday, August 28, 2010

Francis Selormey's Narrow Path

The Narrow Path (1966) is #27 in Heinemann's African Writer's Series. It appears to be straightforwardly autobiographical, recounting the misadventures of Kofi (meaning he who was born on Friday) as he attends a series of Catholic schools in coastal Ghana in the 1930s and 40s, following his itinerant headmaster father, a loving but hardworking and strict man; also the childhood story of the book's author Francis Selormey (1927-1983). It serves as a document of life in rural Ghana at the time, without much commentary on larger issues or indeed much reflection. It is typical of the genre, recounting a strict regime that included corporal punishment and at times dire consequences for youthful transgressions, neither of which seemed to extinguish the protagonist's penchant for mischief, of which there is plenty.

The themes are: coming to terms with a strict father whose excesses reflect the hardships of earlier times; life as the headmaster's son and the new kid on the block; coming of age and attendant crises with honesty, school, money and romance; and the tensions that define the life of a young African student in the post-colonial era, caught as he is between traditional life and the brave new world opening up before him. Subjects of previous posts here that are relevantly similar are the much more philosophical (and Muslim) Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure (1962), the very similar but more intense Chukwuemeka Ike's The Potter's Wheel (1973), and the more recent and far more edgy El-Nukoya's Nine Lives (2007). For more of the persistent theme (also ubiquitous in Asian fiction) of the youth who is caught up (in this case) in the contingencies of rural west African culture check out Nkem Nwanko's Danda (1964), Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl (1977) and the excellent Ben Okri's The Famished Road (1991). The Narrow Path is worth reading for some local color and for impressive verisimilitude but a slight volume in the context of the AWS.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

O'Hanlon's Irish Antibildungsroman

Ardal O'Hanlon's 1998 novel Knick Knack Paddy Whack (the American title of his novel; the original title is The Talk of the Town, which was thought to have too many resonances, I'm guessing, with The New Yorker magazine for yanks), is that very rare book that didn't have to make it through my Stack. I was on vacation in Elk Rapids, Michigan, and finished the books I'd brought along when I spotted it at a book sale in the very beautiful little public library in that very beautiful little town.

O'Hanlon is a stand-up comedian and a television actor who is best known for his role as Father Dougal McGuire in the situation comedy Father Ted (I've never seen it). There are the usual glowing blurbs on the jacket but the book appears to be very little-known. It is written well enough (it's good but not great), but I think it is too squarely in the same ecological niche as too many other contemporary Irish novels to stand out. Of course that's what makes it interesting to the aficianado.

That niche is the Irish antibildungsroman. Boy meets girl, boy gets drunk and falls down, boy alienates/batters/loses/murders girl. There are violent political undertones, grinding poverty, kamikazee alcoholism, small-town gossip that ruins lives, and a titanic psychological war with Catholicism. The Irish, damaged beyond repair by the English, are now their own worst enemies.

All of these elements are present here. The protagonist Patrick Scully is in his late teens and experiencing that most painful phase when the lucky ones go to college and other worlds and in the process turn away from their old mates, now revealed as losers. Things are bad for him but not as bad as he thinks; his own hopelessness is what knocks him down. Maybe: the ultimate facts are kept ambiguous, to good effect. What is clear is that Patrick has lots of talent but through a combination of bad luck and his own internalized crookedness he is doomed. He compares unfavorably to his father, his brother, and his best friend, and in the claustrophobic world of small-town Ireland that is poison for an ambitious young man.

The book got me thinking about the antibildungsroman and how many of these books I've posted about here. O'Hanlon had a role in a movie production of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy (1992), and although this is just speculation on my part I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had thought of the book (his first and only, so far as I know) as a result of that experience. The basic trajectory is very similar. It also brings to mind Eamonn Sweeney's underrated Waiting for the Healer (1997) and is, in both its ideology and plotting, similar to Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home (1990). Sean O'Reilly's The Swing of Things (2005) tackles similar issues. Ken Bruen's 2004 The Guards is in some ways most similar of all as both writers are eager to share their impressions of popular Irish youth culture.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Synge's Aran Islands Journal

J. M. Synge was primarily a playwright, best known for his play The Playboy of the Western World, and one of the leading lights of the "Irish Revival" movement of the late 1800s-early 1900s. The Revival fixed on the Aran Islands as representing the pure, Irish-speaking world it sought to revive, and Synge, an Anglo-Irishman whose uncle had served as the Protestant clergyman to the islands almost fifty years before, went to Aran off and on during the years 1898-1902 to study the Irish language (his Irish is good). He was also an assiduous collector of stories, poems and other folklore, an activity greatly respected and eagerly supported by the islanders. He published The Aran Islands in 1907, the same year that Playboy was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

It is a fine little book, 136 pages filled with stories, both Synge's stories of his experiences and many stories told to him by islanders. There is no politics, no irony, no discussion of Synge's life before or after his time there, nothing about the Irish Revival. There is a great deal of discussion of the Irish language and much trenchant observation of the hard life on the islands, the dangers of putting to sea in the curaghs (large rowing boats), and vivid scenes of island life abound. The islanders are fascinated by Synge and expect him to entertain them, while he is quick to record everything he can about the "fairies," but it is clear that he achieved a measure of intimacy with these very rough people that few if any other outsiders have ever accomplished. An ancient stone lookout seat high on Inishmaan (an anglicization of Inis Meain, "middle island") is to this day known as Synge's Seat.

A nice little gem of a book, very little known. My Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics 1992 paperback edition has excellent footnotes and an extensive introduction by Tim Robinson (I always read the text before the introduction of any book, but in the case of non-fiction maybe that's not quite so important; in any event Robinson's apparatus is worth reading). Synge scholars can also identify sources here for several of the plays. Indispensable for the Irish literature enthusiast and certainly one of the best popular sources on the Arans.