These are the glory days for Irish writing, even if the tiresome burden of Irish history — as reflected in a “peace process” that sometimes looks like the prelude to civil war — is no more manageable than ever. These facts are not unconnected; the rich tradition of Irish storytelling has long served as therapy and consolation, as imaginative salve, for a people nursing a generations-old sense of defeat and ineradicable loss. If this permanent mourning has itself become an addiction whose evil consequences are all too evident, it has also borne extraordinary fruit: a transcendental, mythically charged and unashamedly melodramatic literary vision, without parallel in the world.
In Seamus Deane’s dazzling first novel, “Reading in the Dark,” the atmosphere in the dank Northern Ireland city of Derry (no Irish person uses the 17th century, English-imposed name Londonderry) is so thick with stories it’s a wonder the inhabitants can breathe. The unnamed narrator, a boy raised in a working-class Catholic family in the late 1940s and ’50s, absorbs these stories the way a growing plant absorbs sunlight. He learns of a legendary exorcism, a loyalist policeman thrown off a bridge, a housekeeper trapped in a remote country house with two changeling children (one of the most hair-raising ghost yarns you will ever read), an IRA gun battle in a burning whiskey distillery, a field where birds disappear and wailing souls return from the dead and a prehistoric fort where the “warriors of the legendary Fianna” lie waiting for an intruder to “rouse them from their thousand-year sleep to make final war on the English and drive them from our shores forever.”
Beneath this dense weave of fact, fiction and fantasy is the boy’s sense that his own family’s story remains unsatisfyingly incomplete. This frustration is connected, of course, to the messy, unfinished quality of history itself. He is told that his Uncle Eddie, his father’s brother, joined the IRA, only to disappear at the time of the aforementioned distillery fire, during the 1922 Irish Civil War. Perhaps Eddie died amid the exploding whiskey vats; perhaps he was seen years later in Chicago or Melbourne. But somehow his absence has sparked an endless family feud; the mystery of Eddie’s fate has multiplied, breeding others more deeply buried.
“So broken was my father’s family,” the narrator tells us, “that it felt to me like a catastrophe you could live with only if you kept it quiet, let it die down of its own accord like a dangerous fire … I felt we lived in an empty space with a long cry from him ramifying through it. At other times, it appeared to be as cunning and articulate as a labyrinth, closely designed, with someone sobbing at the heart of it.”
HERE AND THERE, Deane makes explicit the analogy between this broken family and the slowly disintegrating political community of Northern Ireland, where decades of Protestant domination and Catholic resentment led inexorably to the outbreak of the contemporary “Troubles” in 1968. While “Reading in the Dark” is a tender-hearted book, it is also ultimately fatalistic. Deane implies that the warring tribes of Derry are so deeply enmeshed in their stories of hating one another that they would virtually have to abandon their identities in order to stop. The only peace the narrator finally finds, in sorting out the ugly truth about Eddie and his family from the welter of contradictory histories, is a lonely one.
The novel’s title refers to a scene in which the boy, alone, lies in bed after the light is out and wrestles with the narrative of a book he has been reading, imagining alternate paths and endings for the story. It’s no coincidence that the book in question is a romantic nationalist novel called “The Shan Van Vocht” (pseudo-Gaelic for “The Poor Old Woman,” a traditional personification of Ireland). The boy “reading in the dark” is both a budding writer practicing his storytelling skills and a solitary individual trying to impose order on the chaotic torrent of Irish history.
Deane’s apparent pessimism may seem odd at a time when the Republic of Ireland is being celebrated as Eurocapitalism’s miracle economy; the “poor old woman” has traded in her beggar’s rags for a DKNY suit and a technical degree. But the unresolvable Ulster conflict — and the tribal passions that feed it — haunt Ireland’s information-age renaissance in the way that the past always haunts the present, at least until it is confronted honestly. It is not quite true that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. What we see over and over, in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia and the fascist revivals of Western Europe, is that the darkest chapters of human history can be repressed for a while, but that, perhaps unfortunately, we are incapable of forgetting them. Paradoxically, it is one of our greatest gifts, our gift for storytelling, that keeps them alive; we tell them to our fellow tribespeople around the fire at night.
More solace is to be found in the beauty of Deane’s writing — especially his evocation of the sharply detailed yet magically imbued world of childhood — than in his politics. In economical yet startlingly vivid prose, he re-creates a landscape where the two principal modes of Irish myth-making, nationalist and supernatural, intertwine like a double helix, a landscape where the fabulous mingles with the workaday, where fairy children, one eye green and one brown, stand by police cars in the flickering light of Derry’s tribal bonfires.
Of course, the terrain of Irish boyhood — tormented by gimlet-eyed priests, drink-sodden relatives and eight centuries’ worth of betrayed martyrs — is well traveled. It has been a literary staple since James Joyce painted his memorable portrait of a young artist named Stephen Dedalus; you might think of it as the Celtic world’s doleful version of Holden Caulfield’s profane/naive adolescent odyssey.
Deane might seem an unlikely venturer onto this turf, where gold was recently struck by Frank McCourt (in the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir “Angela’s Ashes”) and Roddy Doyle (in the 1993 Booker Prize-winning novel “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”). After all, Deane is publishing “Reading in the Dark” at the age of 57, when he is probably the most eminent Irish literary scholar of his generation (the author of such previous works as “Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980,” he now holds a chair at Notre Dame). Deane is also a well-respected poet, if nowhere near as celebrated as his friend and contemporary, Seamus Heaney. In fact, the novel reportedly was born at a party held after Heaney received the Nobel Prize in 1995, where New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford heard Deane recounting extraordinary stories from his childhood.
But there’s a sense in which Deane is ideally positioned to tackle Joyce on the great modernist’s home ground. For one thing, Deane couldn’t conceal his debt to the Irish literary colossus if he tried; Deane is one of the academic world’s leading Joyceans, and even edited the Penguin edition of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” For another, he has grown old enough to lose the fear of Joyce all young Irish writers must feel, old enough to write a very different kind of autobiographical novel.
Deane’s book is the warmly compassionate, painstakingly gorgeous work of a mature man who wishes to memorialize the dead without yielding to sentimentality; Joyce’s is a younger man’s literary tour de force, intensely self-involved, concerned above all else with the interior world of a consciousness coming to fruition. Stephen Dedalus’ creator believed that Ireland’s three bonds — family, nation, church — were imprisoning him like a seabird in a cage. Seamus Deane understands that Ireland’s endless ability to spin stories, to tell lies, to make tragedy into comedy and history into drama, is its all-in-all, both the prison and the key.