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Life at the Core

About the time the adolescent affair with Donnacha began, the narrator went through a religious phase that saw him sitting in the study of priest and theologian Patrick Moorehouse, who encouraged him to read John Donne and Simone Weil, though, as the narrator acknowledges, “my fascination” was “entirely sexual.” Often Gráinne would also come to these discussions and now, decades later, in the Dublin restaurant she explains that she has written a book denouncing Moorehouse for having abused her sexually. She has invited the narrator to dinner to ask for his corroboration.

Here, then, is another occasion where one who has suffered seeks expression. But the narrator, who was not abused, suspects that Gráinne is cashing in on the interest in priestly pedophilia and that her anger is a function of prima-donna ambitions. Meantime he has promised Donnacha that he will never reveal to Gráinne that they were lovers, a reticence he finds painful. The ensuing clash between a brash, self-serving political correctness and a wounded, defensively cynical sensitivity is excitingly dramatized, while at the structural level a story that may be imagined as a creative reformulation of real experiences balances one character who out of loyalty suppresses truth against another who exploits and magnifies her victimhood. Ironically, the lesson Moorehouse sought to teach both of them was to find “words to match our feelings,” “working our doubts and fears into sentences.”

The New Spain” is another story of expatriation, return, and alienation from a family of origin. Pursued for her Communist activism, Carme fled Franco’s Spain and spent eight years in London, living on handouts from her grandmother and idealizing her Barcelona childhood. She returns not immediately on Franco’s demise but only after the death of her grandmother, who has bequeathed her considerable property to Carme and her sister, not their parents. Hence when Carme finds mother, father, and sister in their holiday home in Minorca, she is no longer the deplored rebel but the powerful owner.

Tóibín is skilled at turning clichés on their heads. Nostalgic and sentimental, Carme is upset that her father and mother have “spoiled” the old family home, developing cheap bungalows on the surrounding coastland, replacing olive trees with a swimming pool, selling off the grandmother’s antique furniture. On the other hand her brusque response, repurchasing the furniture and threatening to reverse all the changes, is a declaration of war that will destroy all family feeling. She wants the house and its traditional Spanish charms, but “emptied of the people who might be in them.” She wants to enjoy the all-night village festivities to celebrate San Juan, the folklore and the color, but when she picks up a man there and brings him home in the early hours, her intention is clearly to let her mother know that she does what she wants and will respect no one.

Again Tóibín invites us to distinguish between an action and the deeper sentiment that motivates it. However courageous and politically appropriate at the time, Carme’s communism, we now suspect, like Gráinne’s crusade for the truth, was largely to do with a penchant for contrariness and grabbing the limelight. That said, the achievement of this story, which stands out as the most accomplished in the book, is that we can’t help feeling a certain attraction to the feisty and destructive Carme. Perhaps the absence of a stoic sufferer of lost love demanding all our sympathy leaves us free to contemplate the story’s intriguing complexities.

If Tóibín is ambitious in “The New Spain,” offering in English a story with only Spanish characters who converse, one presumes, in Catalan, in “The Street” he is even more so, portraying the lives of Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona. Tóibín knows Barcelona and Catalan, but it’s hard to imagine that he speaks Punjabi or Urdu. This then is the most radical formulation of “a new background…a new scenario,” suggesting that the sentiment it deals with will be the most intense, the one that most needs to be held at a distance.

Newly arrived in Barcelona, Malik shares a room with seven other Pakistanis, and is uneducated, unloved, and without prospects. In this he resembles Eilis in Brooklyn (2009), Tóibín’s novel about a young Irish woman immigrating to the States in the 1950s. Albeit on a smaller scale, we have the same savoring of a simple, vulnerable life, and the same affectionately meticulous reconstruction of this person’s world, his or her humiliations, slow accumulation of knowledge, and eventual coming of age. Under the brutal control of Baldy, a Pakistani who dominates him, Malik graduates from sweeping the floor of a barber’s shop to selling phone cards and eventually mobile phones. Above all he discovers love.

Tóibín likes to describe men being gentle with each other, and his prose is at its best when he does so. Here is Henry James in The Master (2004), caring for his sick brother Wilky:

He went down to the hallway and sat close to Wilky, who was groaning softly. He moved closer to him…and held Wilky’s hand for a moment, but since this seemed to cause him pain he withdrew it. He wished that his brother could smile as he had always smiled, but his drawn face now appeared as though it would never smile again.

And here is Malik taking care of Abdul, one of the older men in the room who has fallen ill:

He knelt and gently opened the top of Abdul’s pyjamas and whispered to him that he was going to sponge him with cold water. Abdul nodded slightly and lay quietly as Malik began to sponge his chest; then, having made him sit up, Malik took off the pyjama top and slowly sponged Abdul’s shoulders and back. Abdul looked as though what was happening caused him mild pain.

But unlike The Master, this is a love story. Abdul is aroused. Tóibín spends fifteen patient pages inching the men closer together until their first lovemaking is interrupted by the homophobic Baldy, who beats them ferociously. Malik will spend a period in hospital and some time alone before the lovers are allowed a brief idyll sharing the same suffocating attic. Here, despite the younger man’s evident involvement, Abdul is always a little distant and uneasy; when his cousin, Ali, arrives from Pakistan to share the room with them, we discover why: Ali has a photograph of Abdul with his wife and children.

Malik now seems set for that loss of love that has shaped the lives of Tóibín’s other protagonists. But Abdul at last affirms his affection and insists that Malik return to Pakistan and live with him together with his wife, three children, and an extended family of brothers and cousins, some of whom have “friends who stay.” Malik, who is never stupid, inquires:

“Friends like me?”
“No. But no one will think it strange that you are staying.”
“But your real family is your wife and your children?”
Abdul looked away and was silent for a while. Then he whispered something that Malik could not catch.
“What did you say?”
“I said that my real family is you.”

Here at last is a moment of optimism, not an empty family but a full one. Yet though the story closes with a tender account of the couple’s day off together, the reader can’t help but wonder if this family won’t be rather too full. Is Tóibín really inviting us to imagine that Malik will be happy with Abdul and his wife in Pakistan? Is he suggesting, or simply wishing, that the extended family of an older culture might allow for a more satisfying emotional life? Or is Malik heading for the distress Lady Gregory felt when her love could never be acknowledged, or more likely the misery that will follow when the relationship is discovered? One of the pleasures of reading Tóibín is our awareness of a disciplined and arduous balancing act between sentiment and intelligence, feeling and form. Nowhere is the balance more precarious or intriguing than at this, the collection’s culminating moment.

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