Northern Ireland's agonies defy everything except art

On Books

March 26, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

I have been to Ireland time and again for much of my life, listening, writing, savoring the joys of a country I love -- and trying to understand things that defy understanding. Thoughts of Ireland sent me back almost 20 years the other day, to a passage in a long series of articles I wrote in 1981:

"At every corner on the island of Ireland, history is both witness and judge, the accuser and the accused. It intrudes, first as an engaging, often lyric, counterpoint to all other subjects. Quickly then, it overpowers the initial theme -- be that poetry or social welfare, horse-racing or industrial development, fables or farming, family or foreign relations, literature or liberty. On the island of Ireland, history is a tyrant."

That tyranny is at its cruelest in Northern Ireland, the six-county British province where Protestant unionists outnumber Catholic nationalists by almost two-to-one. In Northern Ireland today, the latest of endless civilized efforts to end a culture of violence is in the throes of failure.

Why? Because tiny minorities of zealots and cynics of both sides play upon pathetic fears and historic resentments to sustain their blood vindictiveness and to preserve personal power. In this province of fewer than 2 million people, they render politics, practical sensibility, human decency and law all helpless.

Now comes a brief work of fiction by an extraordinary Irish writer that portrays with amazing precision and truth the terrible emotional forces that drive that rage and fear.

It is "Everything in This Country Must" (Metropolitan Books, 118 pages, $21), a novella and two tiny short stories by Colum McCann. McCann's previous novel, "This Side of Brightness," was a brilliant exploration of alienation and redemption in the United States, to which he came not long ago from Ireland. His short stories have been met with appropriate approbation.

This book is crisp and clean and full of the wisdom of recognizing the mysterious strength of the individual. It offers no answers, no prescriptions, no hopeless politics. But in as true a passage as I can recall, McCann writes of the mother of a tormented child, the sister-in-law of a dead hunger-striker:

"His mother said she wondered sometimes if people had just left small pieces of their sanity here and there, until they finally discovered that there was no longer enough left to go around and so they lived with all the pieces of their shattered stupidity."

The title story begins the book. It takes place on a Catholic farmer's place in Northern Ireland. His 15-year-old daughter, Katie, is the narrator. His favorite draught horse is trapped in a flooded stream. A passing British Army patrol comes and saves the horse.

When the soldiers have gone the farmer kills it -- an act of cold, redemptive anger against all things British.

The title comes as Katie is watching Stevie, one of the soldiers, risking his life to extricate the animal from the flood: "I was wearing Stevie's jacket but I was shivering and wet and cold and scared because Stevie and the draught horse were going to die since everything in this country must."

Sadder by far than the idea of inevitable death is the awful self-destructiveness of Katie's father's rage, the tragically Irish way in which acts of self-sacrifice that are truly self-destructive are taken to be courageous declarations of defiance. This is the ethic of the hunger strike, a mortal gesture that is rooted in a dozen centuries and more of Irish tradition.

The second story, also a tiny gem of concision and invocation of fear, is told equally convincingly from the vantage point of a Protestant zealot.

McCann uses language punctiliously, fine poet that he is. His sentences are short, declarative, put together with tiny minimalist, impressionistic descriptions, almost always with a single clause.

It is very visual prose, painterly writing. The texture is so vivid and so clean that, without regard to story, you can turn to many a random page and find it simply a joy to read.

The main story, "Hunger Strike," begins in a Galway seaside town. A boy and his mother have come there from their home in Derry, which next to Belfast has been the most violence-punished city in Northern Ireland. He is 13. His father was killed in a traffic accident when the boy was 7 and the family was on the road with others doing music.

The mother is getting a day-to-day report through a public phone booth on the status of the boy's father's brother, who is in prison for acts of terrorism. The first report is that "he's on," meaning he has declared, on the death of the previous serial hunger-striker, that his self-starvation has begun. He is 25, the fourth in the sequence of strikers. The boy has never met him.

The boy is full of rage and has no way to express it except by alienation. Early in the story, McCann writes: "When the boy turned and looked up to the sky again he thought to himself that if there really was a God he didn't like Him, he could never like Him. He cursed aloud and his shout went out over the water -- the horizon was already stained with sunset -- and the water took the shout and swallowed it He tried again. [Expletive] you God."

After the uncle dies, the boy's mother tells him that his father "never believed that the cure for war was war."

It's painful to read. It is beautiful. It is fluent, marching along in a quick-step mournful key, with a lilt about it that makes it impossible to stop. And then the story ends, clean, hard, true -- with a simple, terrible force.

If the job of literature is to make sense of the tragic inexplicabilities of life -- though they can never be completely understood -- then McCann is writing very fine literature.

Pub Date: 03/26/00

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