Irish secrets and lies

An interview with Seamus Deane, author of the novel "Reading in the Dark."

Published April 11, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

At 57, Seamus Deane has pulled off one of the rarest of literary feats: moving from the top ranks of academia to the top ranks of literature. The eminent Irish critic and author, holder of a chair at Notre Dame, editor of the Norton "Field Day Anthology" (the definitive collection of Irish literature), acclaimed poet and renowned Joyce scholar, has just published his first novel, "Reading in the Dark," to extraordinary accolades. The novel, short-listed for the United Kingdom's most prestigious literary prize, the Booker, tells the story of a Northern Irish family haunted by secret sorrows and caught up in the long tragedy of their native land.
Deane says that "Reading in the Dark" was "dragged out of him" over several years by Bill Buford, the former editor of Granta, now the literary editor of the New Yorker.
"Bill plagued me for ages," said Deane, "until I began to write some. And then it was on, off, a struggle between him and me, me deciding, no, I don't want to go on with this, and him encouraging me to proceed. It was a very reluctant birth."

Salon talked with Deane by telephone from Dublin.

How much of you and your family is in the novel?

A good deal. I have been insistent in saying that it's fiction, it's not a memoir, but there is a good deal of autobiographical material in it. It is a conflation of two or three family histories, with my own family the most prominent among them. A lot of the political stuff is directly out of my family.

They were caught up in "The Troubles"?


In what way?

Well, my Uncle Eddie was an IRA commander, and he did disappear.

Uncle Eddie in the book was your real Uncle Eddie?

Oh, yeah. A lot of the names in the book are real family names, like Uncle Eddie. The grandfather on my mother's side was involved in the IRA as well. The police station beating happened. Eddie did disappear. Another relative did flee mysteriously to Chicago.

To what extent were you shaped by that family experience, and by "The Troubles" in general?

I don't suppose that there was any point at which I ever felt that there was a visible gap between what people call politics and my private life. The two things were always integrated. I learned that a political system, especially when it's a rancid one, as in Northern Ireland, has an effect on personal relationships -- in fact, it spreads right through the whole society. Especially when the political system is based on various forms of coercion and colonization.

Did that rancidness infect people who fought the political system, like some of the characters in your book?

I think everybody is infected, one way or the other. Some people have the ability -- or luck -- not to have it run in particular channels. But when a family has directly experienced political violence, then it's very difficult to avoid the more deforming aspects of it. But it's also useful, in that it allows you to see just how dangerously insinuating violence is.

How involved were you politically?

Involved as a member of various groups, like the Wolf Tone club, that met in damp basements and debated world politics. Involved to the extent that, because my family lived in Derry, I found myself caught up in a riot or a shoot-out. Involved in the sense that I have commented on the situation and have been monotonously fascinated by it.

Do you still have family in Derry?

Yes, three brothers and one sister are still there.

Are they hopeful that the troubles will end in their lifetime?

I think they are pretty low about it these days. They feel that a golden opportunity was lost during the first (IRA) cease-fire. They just wonder.

What do you think?

It is very difficult to see much ahead because the political situation is so uncertain. A new government may be coming in Britain. One reason for hope is that there is new thinking on the part of the Protestant paramilitaries. If they can take over some of the traditional Unionist constituency, then there is a possibility of some real negotiations within Northern Ireland taking place.

It looks like that new government will be a Labour government. Can they make a fresh start with the peace process?

It's difficult to be very optimistic about a Labour government in Northern Ireland, because the two worst (Northern Ireland ministers) were Merlyn Rees and Roy Mason under earlier Labour governments. What the Labour party says is that it will go some way to reinstating the peace process and it says that it will go some way to curbing the Orange marches. But it hasn't dotted any i's or crossed any t's on those issues, you know. But I do think a cease-fire could be restored some time after Labour wins the election.

But will the IRA abide by it for long? Some of them have been fighting for so long. Have they been too "deformed" or "infected" to lay down their arms, to stop shooting and stop bombing?

I think there are some people in the IRA who will say, "Never lay down arms until the final goal is achieved." But I'd say the majority of IRA members would be willing to lay down arms if they saw some political benefit in doing so. But they won't lay them down so that the British government can say, "Well, we beat the terrorists. We'll reinstate the political status quo."

The "final goal" for dyed-in-the-wool Republicans is a united Ireland. How realistic is that?

It's not going to happen soon. Maybe by the year 2020 -- the year of perfect vision (laughs). For the moment, we're going to have to settle for some weakening of the Union on one side, and surrender of the United Ireland dream on the other. And hope that subsidies from the European Union will keep the place afloat and economically viable for a while.

The south, which was thought of as one of the more backward and poverty-stricken countries in Europe, now seems to be doing much better, partly thanks to the European Union. Is Ireland changing, economically and socially?

Oh, very rapidly; it is much wealthier than it used to be, much more secular than it used to be. Former immigrants are returning and the whole structure and value system of the society has altered radically. Ireland has a growth rate of 6 to 8 percent per annum for the past five years. That's higher than any other country in Europe.

The Catholic Church has had an iron grip on much of Irish society. Is that weakening also?

It's much weaker, partly because of the number of child abuse and sexual scandals, partly because of the increasing secularization. It still has power, but nothing -- neither the status nor the power -- that it had even 10 years ago.

Irish literature seems to be booming. Yourself, Frank McCourt, Seamus Heaney ...

Yes, but that is often a bad sign politically. I do think that Irish writing has gained more notice partly because Irish political crisis has been so widely reported and observed.

Do you have any favorites, or recommendations?

The book I think is among the most notable to have come out recently is Dermot Healy's "A Bend For Home." It's a magnificent book. Right now I am reading Healy's other novel, "A Goat's Song." Among other Irish writers, I would mention Aidan Matthews. And John Banville has a new book about to come out. I hear great rumors about it but haven't seen it yet.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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