In Quest of Uncle Tom

Dublin: A Portrait

by V.S. Pritchett, Photographs by Evelyn Hofer
Harper & Row, 99 pp., $15.00

Irish Journal

by Heinrich Böll
McGraw-Hill, 127 pp., $4.95

Travel books are never about the places and people they are supposed to be about, but about the differences between these and the places and people the writer knows best, and about what these differences mean to the writer. For the native of the place, however, the things that he and his relations have in common with neighboring peoples and with other men generally are not less important than the things that separate them. The traveler’s account, based on a catalogue of differences and ignoring the common, must therefore seem wrong to the native. This will always be so, unless the native is already rapt in the vision of himself as the foreigner sees him, a fascinating, inimitable, inscrutable concentration of qualities unique even if sometimes repulsive. Romanticism, egoism, and masochism aiding, some Irishmen, like some Jews, have attained that sinister condition described by Claudel: la quiétude incestueuse de l’âme assise sur sa différence essentielle.

The stage Irishman, as Mr. Pritchett correctly observes, does exist. He might have added that the “house” for the stage Irishman has always consisted largely, though not entirely, of foreigners, and that this is why off-stage Irishmen have often so hotly resented the stage variety, as a combination of traitor and ambulant forgery, self-framed to corroborate the vision of the foreigner and to answer his need. For the stage-Irishman this is part of the fun. He baits his respectable fellow-country-men by playing on their secret fear that, deep down, this is how they really are. He baits the foreigner, both by overacting the part prescribed for him, and by direct and crude insult, made admissible by the mask. And above all, he baits himself, even to death, as did Brendan Behan, the greatest of his kind.

FOR A MINORITY PEOPLE, the question of what and how they seem to others is often of more pressing importance than the more difficult question of what and how they actually are. A hostile stereotype can be literally lethal, under certain conditions. Even a mildly unfavorable account can be a form of isolation, a sort of trap. On the other hand a favorable account can seem to be a kind of freedom: the connotations of the label have become that much more favorable. One can breathe that much more easily.

An Irish reader of these two books will be interested not so much in what they may reveal about the Irish as in what they reveal about the English and about the Germans: What qualities, in the life of a small, peripheral, and largely pre-industrial people, at present seem significant to intelligent middle-class observers from populous and heavily industrialized countries? Today—to judge from these books and the general tone of much recent press comment by journalists—the central significant quality is that of gentleness. The excellent photographs by Evelyn Hofer—which will make anyone who loves the city want to acquire Dublin: A Portrait—are rich in this quality: so rich that after a while the …

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