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Waking from the Nightmare

1.

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 upon a young servant girl and then raised in a baby farm managed by a slovenly shrew. McCabe offers us a new Ireland of the imagination—a landscape of bloody slapstick and gender-entangled grotesques. Joyce gave us something like that in the brothel episode of Ulysses, but his other episodes opened up other vistas. Poor Puss is trapped forever within his world of cheap (and carefully specified) perfume and frustrated maternal instinct, with a craving for true love as ludicrous and as affecting as that of Chaplin’s Tramp. Beyond him, as he knows but will not admit to himself save through parody, is a grudging, savage world. Small wonder then that his one image of lasting happiness is that of infinite space, as expressed in a hit song of 1969, which happens to have been the first year of the present Troubles:

Living within all the dreams you can spin
There is so much to see
We’ll visit the stars and journey to Mars
Finding our breakfast on Pluto.

The voices which Puss finds to express the near inexpressibility of violence are made available to him when a prison psychiatrist gives him notebook and paper. (Arather clumsy device, but never mind.) Here is Puss in a London disco, when the British soldier with whom he has been flirting is destroyed, along with most of the disco, by an IRA bomb:

Puss coughing a little to summon up the courage to whisper, squeaky-voiced: “Oh, yes!” and look into his eyes when one part of his head went to the left, the other part to the right and the brains which were inside to the floor pouring like scrambled egg—or so it seemed to Puss.

But here, presumably composed by Puss, but with an entirely different voice, is an account, worthy of early Hemingway, of the growing political violence back in his native Tyreelin:

Laurence, being Down’s syndrome, couldn’t pronounce his words right—which is why I called him Laurence Lebrity. No matter how he tried he just couldn’t get it right, the name of his favorite program—Celebrity Squares. I used to meet him every day and say: “I suppose you’ll be watching it tonight, will you, Laurence?”, and he’d start clapping his hands and jumping up and down. Quite what he must have made of two completely strange men standing in his living room while he was watching Bob Monkhouse reading from his cue cards, all you can say is God only knows. Nothing, I suppose. Too busy clapping his hands and going: “Lebrity Kwares! Lebrity Kwares!”

When they started asking him the questions, most likely he thought it was his own sort of private Celebrity Squares. And why, probably, he raced up the stairs so enthusiastically to get his rosary beads when they leaned in close and asked him, smiling: “What religion are you?”

Which they were happy to accept as an answer, and why, after they had raped his mother, they put the beads around his neck as a garland and said: “Clap your hands for Celebrity Squares!” which he did, as enthusiastically as ever.

He was the first Down’s syndrome boy shot in the Northern Ireland war. The first in Tyreelin, anyway.

This swatch of prose, a little chapter of its own, depends for its effect upon a skillful use of the laconic; it would seem well beyond Puss’s natural language, of which he is proud. This leans toward the jazzy and flamboyant, and would be unlikely to tuck away a rape in an uninflected subordinate clause. What might be called the book’s running style is a joining of two distinct dialects—a rural Irish version of international Youthspeak, demotic and fizzy, and, for purposes of parodic mockery, the language of Catholic Ireland’s official sensibility—sentimental, saccharine, and hypocritical. Between them, they contrive to express his own wretched yet appealing self.

Tyreelin, a stand-in for McCabe’s own town of Clones, a mile or so south of the border, was in the Seventies to acquire a reputation as “bandit country,” a staging area for conflict. Such matters do not intrude deeply into Puss’s rock’n’roll consciousness. A chum of his becomes a hopelessly inept rebel and is bumped off by his comrades. One of his married lovers, a free-spending politician who runs guns, perhaps for both sides, is executed by explosion. The IRA and its adversaries have the unimportance of the white legs of the drowning Icarus in Breughel’s painting. Even landmark events—the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry by British paratroops—float at the edges of his memory, helping him with dates.

Not that Puss lacks passion: he hates his father, the frightened lecher who helped bring him into the world. And he longs for the mother whom he imagines to resemble Mitzi Gaynor with her bubble-cut. He dreams, when his sanity is at its farthest stretch, of his own coming motherhood. He half understands that his makeup and his feminine finery, his fan magazines from the Fifties, the loud music which releases the most true of his responses, all serve to insulate him from the awful actualities of his life. So too does his tone and attitude: wide stretches of the novel are genuinely hilarious.

His story opens with an account of the distressing circumstances of his conception, in the rectory of the church:

It was a beautiful crisp Christmas morning. All across the little village which lay nestled on the southern side of the Irish border, one could sense an air of tense but pleasurable expectancy. Already the small birdies, as if conscious of the coming mood of celebration and acceptable self-indulgence which was so much a part of the much-loved season, had begun their carefully co-ordinated invasions, their industrious beaks like so many arrowheads stiletto-jabbing the frosted gold-tops of the early-morning milk bottles. Even at this early hour, there are one or two children playing—cork guns being proudly displayed and nurses’ uniforms flaunted in so many minx-like parades…. Already, the beloved pastor of this parish, Father Bernard McIvor, will be busying himself inside his sacristy.

It is not easy to write this badly. “Small birdies”pushes the envelope, but “acceptable self-indulgence” is masterly, capturing the precise tone of unctuous inanity used in the Catholic magazines which Puss, for the moment, is parodying. But the tone shifts with the next sentence: “Donning the starched vestments which, it would later be the contention of an ill-informed psychiatrist, were partly responsible for his son’s attraction to the airy apparel of the opposite sex.”And we are informed within the paragraph that it was on a Christmas morning and in this sacristy that Father Bernard “inserted his excitable pee pee into the vagina of a woman who was so beautiful she looked not unlike Mitzi Gaynor the well-known film star.” It was at that moment that the priest made possible Puss’s existence while simultaneously sentencing him to Christmases not of popguns and festive song but of “Ma Whiskers” at the baby farm shouting: “Come over here and pull this fucking cracker till we get this fucking Christmas finished with!”

The abrupt down-tumble of the diction exemplifies one of the novel’s central devices—the clash between one or another of Ireland’s constricting gentilities and the sordid actuality which it conceals. Or rather, which it used to conceal. The present public scandals of fornicating bishops and pedophile priests suggest not an increase of clerical libido but rather a readiness to publicize such matters within a culture belatedly undergoing a process of secularization. McCabe’s casual readiness to mock such tribal taboos is itself a part of that process and one which he shares with most of the large and growing company of contemporary Irish writers. His own well-earned critical success however (twice a Booker Prize finalist and a winner of the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize) is a consequence of a ferocious moral vision joined with dazzling technical skills.

His books are skillful exercises in the macabre and the horrific, as may be judged from the instances quoted here, although in fact Puss Braden is a fairly normal McCabe character, flighty it may be thought, but quick-witted and socially observant. The central characters in those books by which he gained a popular following, The Butcher Boy (1992) and The Dead School (1995), are not reading for the delicate. In the earlier of these, we observe the transformation of the narrator from the impoverished and outcast child in the Ireland of the Sixties into obsessed killer, while remaining fairly cheerful. It is as though Stephen King had learned how to write.

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