In the early morning of the day that fills Ulysses, as they stand outside the Martello tower at Sandycove, Haines, the sentimental English celtophile with eyes sea-cold and imperial, tells Stephen Dedalus: “We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame.” Stephen replies only with a wary silence, but history is much upon his own mind that day, like God and Shakespeare and his father. History in the large, universal sense, but more particularly the messy, contingent history of his own island. Later that morning, talking with an Ulster Protestant schoolmaster for whom that history has a very different meaning and color, he says, in words that would become memorable: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
And with those words, he set down an agenda for the succeeding century of Irish literature. At times it has been difficult to decide which has been the more nightmarish, the history or the struggle to awake from it. The world beyond—we readers—has attended to it, held in place, very much like Coleridge’s Wedding Guest, by the power of the tale told and by those special gifts of eloquence and verbal magic which it would be trite to comment upon, but which are surely aspects of that literature and products of its complicated history.
The three books here under consideration, two of them novels and one a memoir of sorts by a distinguished poet, offer variations on Stephen’s theme. Although all three have been written in the shadow of Northern Ireland’s recent three decades of violent history, they deal with it either by an almost theatrical obliqueness or else by a charged near silence. All three, although in very different ways, make use of this narrative strategy to point us to a central thematic concern—the shaping presence of history. Like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not howl in the night, we are directed to this concern by its silence upon the page.
Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto is partly spoken and partly written by young Paddy “Puss” Braden, a transvestite prostitute, as he negotiates, or blunders, his way through a world of corrupt and sexually ambiguous politicians, queasily lustful parish priests, gunmen, and bombers, protected only by his cheekiness and his Candide-like innocence, and expressing himself either through his own demotic speech or through his improbable gifts of ventriloquism and pastiche. The narrative unfolds first in rural Ireland and then in a lurid London lit by strobe lights in discos and, on occasion, by IRAbombs. In either setting, Puss pays little attention to history of that sort, wrapped as he is in a cocoon of pink boas, dance hall chatter, and rock lyrics.
McCabe leaves us free to infer, if we are so inclined, that Puss’s psyche has been shaped in good part by the extremity of his circumstances; he is a bastard conceived by the frantic fumblings of a parish priest …