Monday, March 12, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“AFTER THE LOCKOUT” by Darran McCann (4th Estate / Harper-Collins $NZ24:99)
St Patrick’s Day is this week, so I make it my business to read an Irish novel hot off the press – and a solid piece of work it proves to be, too. After The Lockout is a very good historical novel and the debut of an Irish writer in his early 30s.

I commend historical novels for how well they enter imaginatively into the ethos of a past age. This is not the same as saying that I expect historical novels to be balanced works of history. It is for historians to try to find some balance and perspective from the surviving records. Historical novelists should strive to recreate how people once thought, felt and acted; and not pretend that they necessarily saw the world as we see it. In other words, historical novelists have to show some historical imagination. If their characters’ views are partisan and unbalanced, then even good historical novels can go ahead and be partisan and unbalanced. And, as it happens, After The Lockout is highly partisan.

In a nutshell, this is a lament for the left-wing socialist Irish republic that never was, and a howl of despair at how it came never to be.

The time is late 1917. The First World War is still raging and Irish soldiers are involved in it, even if there is no conscription in Ireland. It is more than a year since the abortive Easter Rising of 1916, which is already fast being transformed in a powerful nationalist myth. Some young Irishmen are preparing for an armed struggle against English rule.

Victor Lennon is a 27-year-old man who has just been released from jail for his own part in the rising. But he is less than starry-eyed about the event and more than a little contemptuous of na├»ve nationalists. In fact Victor believes (as the novel’s title indicates) that for Ireland’s future, the nationalist rising was far less important the big industrial strike and lockout that happened in Dublin just before the world war broke out. Victor wants class war, not nationalist war. His heroes are the socialists Jim Larkin and James Connolly – not the Irish Volunteers and Irish Republican Brotherhood who planned the rising. As the Bolshevik revolution had just happened in Russia, he declares himself a Communist and burns to spread the Marxist word. (The novelist is surely aware that, accurately or inaccurately, most of us pronounce “Lennon” the same as we pronounce “Lenin”).

But first he has to go to his home village in County Armagh to sort out some personal problems connected with his drunken, poteen-distilling father Pius.

And here the novel’s personal conflict plays out. Ruling the village is a particularly tyrannical parish priest, Fr Stanislaus Benedict – a vain and petty puritan who stands on his dignity about such matters as his official title. He supervises parishioners’ morality with a gimlet eye. Drunkenness, fornication and dancing after hours receive public rebukes which are usually obeyed submissively. Confession is a weapon and excommunication often threatened. Cardinal Logue, Primate of Ireland, has warned his priests that they must be particularly vigilant about these Bolshevik and socialist propagandists who are corrupting people’s morals. Fr Benedict takes him seriously. When Victor Lennon returns to the village and is hailed as a hero for his part in the Easter Rising, Fr Benedict smells trouble, especially as Victor is in no time preaching the Communist gospel.

The plot develops between the polarities of the priest and the young Communist, heading for a very public conflict and (it has to be admitted) a rather melodramatic finale.

En route, however, Darran McCann takes the temperature of Ireland in 1917. Remember, this was before the War of Independence (1919-21) and Civil War (1922-23) had happened; but McCann dramatises a lot of the fault-lines that would crack open in those conflicts. With Victor, there is the socialist ideologue who thinks social revolution should come before national independence can mean anything. With Fr Benedict there is the voice of Catholic conservatism which would shape the Irish Free State and the early Republic. There are differing shades of Irish nationalism in the supporting characters, including the curate Fr Daly who seems more aware of the church’s social teaching than his boss is. There is also awareness that a possible partition of Ireland is looming. Armagh, where the story is set, was later to be on the wrong side of the border when the artificial British statelet of “Northern Ireland” was created. After the Lockout also takes note of the powerful and destructive influence of drink on Irish manhood. It is seen to be as much of a determinant in Ireland’s political history as ideas have been.

Darran McCann is on Victor Lennon’s side more that Fr Stanislaus Benedict’s side. You can tell this from the way the story is narrated. Victor speaks in the first-person and the present tense - an easy invitation to identify with him. Fr.Benedict is presented in the third-person and the past tense, with much ironical description to deflate his pomposity.

Yet McCann is too skilful to make his characters wholly black-and-white. The puritanical priest’s backstory reveals somebody risen from low down the social heap, fiercely concerned with his parishioners’ souls and often capable of more astute judgement (about, for example, the village’s amateur prostitute) than the young agitator is. Fr Benedict has also had experience of supporting peasants in the old “Land War” in which they wrested property off landlords. He is depicted as a malign and reactionary force, but he is not as ignorant of social change as Victor Lennon assumes he is.

Victor Lennon may burn with a zeal for social justice, but he is profoundly flawed and often his own worst enemy. He regularly drinks himelf stupid. He can’t control his sexual urges, swyving with the local slapper while at the same time expecting the local schoolteacher to take seriously his declarations of love. Above all, he misreads the local peasantry and keeps treating them to textbook Marxist diatribes for which they aren’t ready and in which they aren’t interested. He does not have the sense to realize that, when peasants have only just won ownership of their land, the last thing they want to have sold to them is Communist collectivisation.

Surprisingly, the novelist also shows Victor sharing unthinkingly in the prejudices of his age. Victor cheers with the proletarian crowd when he sees newsreels of the “nigger” boxer Jack Johnson getting what he deserves at the hands of a white challenger. Victor tells the woman he’s courting that the only flicker he’s seen that was a real “work of art” was Birth of a Nation (in case you didn’t know – the film that encouraged the re-formation of the Ku Klux Klan). Most by-the-numbers historical novelists would have had their protagonist denouncing racism to keep in the good graces of their readers. Darran McCann assumes his readers are sophisticated enough to recognise autres temps et autres moeurs when they see them.

This is a novel of very sharp observation, flawed only by its ending. It probably helps to have some prior knowledge of Irish history when reading it. There genuinely was a radical left in Ireland in the early 20th century and, when the Civil War came, most of the radical left were in the IRA fighting against the new Free State. Later, some radical-left IRA men left memoirs, in permanent mourning that the independent Irish state turned out to be conservative and Catholic rather than collectivist and socialist. More recently, Ken Loach’s 2006 film The Wind that Shakes the Barley fostered the myth that the IRA of the Irish Civil War era was predominantly left-wing. But this was strictly a myth. For even if Ireland’s hard-left were in the IRA, they were only a minority of the Civil War-era IRA, which was overwhelmingly nationalist rather than Marxist. It couldn’t help being so when it was led by the archetypal Catholic conservative Eamon de Valera.

Darran McCann may in part be lamenting the red-socialist dream that never became a reality (in Ireland or anywhere else); but he knows that history doesn’t really allow replays. When the stern priest declares “The Russian experiment…. is sure to end in horror”, both the author’s and our sense of historical irony will tell us that, sad to admit, the priest proved to be right. Victor Lennon is the true voice of a particular attitude at one moment in Ireland’s history. But the moment passed and Ireland never had a social revolutionary phase.

After the Lockout helps to explain why not.

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