Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Flann O’Brien

Flann O’Brien and Catholicism Part 3

strabane festival

 

Here I continue dealing with the references to Catholicism in O’Brien’s work.

Slattery’s Sago Saga

 

sago

In this short novella, Crawford MacPherson has a totalitarian philanthropic mission. She has seen the ill effects of Irish emigration on the United States:

“they bred and multiplied and infested the whole continent, saturating it with crime, drunkenness, illegal corn liquor, bank robbery, murder, prostitution, syphilis, mob rule, crooked politics and Roman Catholic Popery…Adultery, salacious dancing, blackmail, drug peddling, pimping, organising brothels, consorting with niggers and getting absolution for all their crimes from Roman Catholic priests…”

Her solution is to take over all Irish agricultural land and ban potatoes. The Irish dietary need for starch will be sated by sago.

The Hard Life

“Dedicated to Graham Greene, whose own forms of gloom I admire”.

hard life

This novel is set in the Dublin of 1890. Mr Collopy has become the guardian of his nephews, Finbarr (the narrator) and Manus. The boys attend prison-like schools run by the Christian Brothers in a regime of excessive corporal punishment. The Synge Street school attended by Finbarr was O’Brien’s own school.

Mr Collopy enjoys his drinking and talking sessions with the Jesuit, Father Fahrt, but is not averse to expressing strong opinions about the failings of the Catholic Church.  “Oh the grand old Catholic church has always had great praise for sufferers… you won’t find Quakers or swaddlers coming out with any of this guff about suffering. They treat their employees right, they have proper accommodation for them, they know how to make plenty of money honestly and they are as holy – every man-jack of them – as any blooming Jesuit or the Pope of Rome himself”.

“A humble Jesuit would be like a dog without a tail or a woman without a knickers on her”. The Dominicans of the Spanish Inquisition were “blood-stained bowsies”. “The holy friars in Spain propagated the true faith by driving red hot nails into the backs of unfortunate Jewmen…Scalding their testicles with boiling water…And ramming barbed wire or something of the kind up where-you-know. And all AMDG [to the greater glory of God], to use your own motto, Father”. “If that’s the Catholic Church for you, is it any wonder there was a reformation? Three cheers for Martin Luther!”

Is Manus another version of de Selby who appears in footnotes in The Third Policeman and in person in The Dalkey Archive? He perverts science to quackery and exploits it for commercial gain.

Mr Collopy at times appears to be a proto-feminist. One of those human institutions about which to be pessimistic is the Dublin Metropolitan Corporation. Collopy is rallying the Dublin Corporation to provide public lavatories for women, and trying to persuade Father Fahrt to enlist the support of the church. They do eventually get an audience with the Pope, who becomes angry that Collopy is involving him in such a matter and in a mixture of Italian and Latin condemns him to hell.

According to Anthony Cronin, O’Brien was hopeful that the book would be banned. I have written elsewhere about how O’Brien was a post-modernist avant la lettre, even being an inspiration for the TV series Lost.  As Keith Hopper has written:  “One consequence of Irish censorship culture was that modernism almost passed Ireland by. By 1946, over 1,700 titles were proscribed on the grounds of ‘indecency’, including most of the leading international modernists. But if modernism was disallowed, postmodernism crept in through the back door, virtually unnoticed. At the start of the Second World War a trinity of Irish novels emerged which, in retrospect, mark the moment when high modernism began to drift, almost imperceptibly, into postmodernism: Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), Beckett’s Murphy (1938), and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). However, unlike Joyce or Beckett, Flann O’Brien never lived abroad. As a writer whose exile was interior, his textual strategies of silence, exile and punning are, by necessity, of a different order. In this respect, O’Brien’s particular brand of postmodernism must be read in two interrelated contexts: in an aesthetic domain (a challenge to the conceits of high modernism); and an ethical domain (a resistance to the nativist hegemony of Irish censorship culture).”

Being banned was a mark of distinction for an Irish author and O’Brien had not established himself. Often books were banned for alleged sexual obscenity (sex does not seem to have been O’Brien’s thing) but he gleefully expected that “the mere name of Father Kurt Fahrt SJ will justify the thunderclap”. He planned to challenge the ban in the high court and seek damages. He advised the publishers to make the book low-key in order to fool the “Reverend Spivs”. “Our bread and butter depends on being one jump ahead of the other crowd”.

There is an assumption in the book, says Cronin, “that the Catholic church is a very important institution, that it occupies a place of primary importance in the world, and that its existence affects life and one’s outlook on life in enormously important ways”.

The Pope’s angry reaction Mr Collopy’s campaign for a better lot for women makes the church seem, says Cronin, “ male, hierarchical and dismissive”. “A victory for Mr Collopy in the book’s terms would mean an acceptance of women as equal human beings and of their bodily needs as something of great importance. The Pope, supreme patriarch of a patriarchal world, draws back from such an acceptance. ‘Bona mulier fons gratiae’ he says. ‘Attamen ipsae in parvularum rerum suarum occupationibus verrentur. Nos de tantulis rebus consulere non decet’”. (A good woman is a fountain of grace. But it is themselves whom they should busy about their private little affairs. It is not seemly to consult us on such matters).

The Dalkey Archive

This book reworks material from the unpublished The Third Policeman and features De Selby and the constabulary’s atomic theory. The main character Mick Shaughnessy and his friend Hackett accidentally meet De Selby (philosopher, savant, mad scientist, quack?).

picador dalkey

De Selby said: “I accepted as fact the story of the awesome encounter between God and the rebel Lucifer. But I was undecided for many years as to the outcome of that encounter. I had little to corroborate the revelation that God had triumphed and banished Lucifer to hell forever. For if- I repeat if – the decision had gone the other way and God had been vanquished, who but Lucifer would be certain to put about the other and opposite story?”

De Selby arranges an encounter with St Augustine in a cave  under the sea. The Bishop of Hippo speaks with a Dublin accent and claims his father was Irish – “a proper gobshite”. He has little time for St Francis Xavier and St Ignatius Loyola. Xavier consorted with Buddhist monkeys and Loyola’s “saintliness was next to bedliness” and he led an army of “merchandisers”.

“Mick reminded himself that while he observed reasonably well the rules of the Church, he had never found himself much in rapport in the human scene with any priest. In the confessional he had often found their queries naïve , stupid, occasionally impertinent; and the feeling that they meant well and were doing their best was merely an additional exasperation. He was complete enough in himself, he thought: educated, tolerant, contemptuous of open vice or licentious language but ever careful to show charity to those who in weakness had strayed”.

When Mick meets James Joyce in Skerries, Joyce complains: “Even here, where my identity is quite unknown, I’m regarded as a humbug, a holy Mary Ann, just because I go to daily Mass. If there’s one thing scarce in Catholic Ireland, it is Christian charity”.

Mick decides he wants to give up the secular life and join the priesthood. “He said it with great sorrow, and God forgive him for saying it at all, but the great majority of Catholic curates he had met were ignorant men, possibly schooled in the mechanics of ordinary theology but quite unacquainted with the arts, not familiar with the great classical writers in Latin and Greek, immersed in a swamp of tastelessness. Still he supposed they could be discerned as the foot soldiers of the Christian army, not to be examined individually too minutely”.

Joyce himself wants to become a Jesuit: “I must be candid here, and careful. You might say that I have more than one good motive for wishing to become a Jesuit Father. I wish to reform, first the society, and then through the Society the church. Error has crept in…corrupt beliefs…certain shameless superstitions…rash presumptions which have no sanction within the word of the Scriptures…Straightforward attention to the word of God …will confound all Satanic quibble”.

Joyce dismisses the concept of the Holy Ghost and thereby the Holy Trinity: “The Holy Ghost was not officially invented until the Council of Constantinople in 381… The Father and Son were meticulously defined at the council of Nicaea, and the Holy Spirit hardly mentioned. Augustine was a severe burden on the early Church and Tertullian split it wide open. He insisted that the Holy Spirit was derived from the Father and the Son – quoque, you know. The Eastern Church would have nothing to do with such a doctrinal aberration. Schism!”

Cronin finds fault with The Dalkey Archive because the author “clearly  expected his audience to gasp with shock before becoming overwhelmed with mirth at such schoolboy jokes as the questions de Selby puts to St Augustine in the cave and the saint’s answers”. “There is a clear impression that the author was trying to have it both ways, to affirm his orthodoxy while at the same time making an uneasy suggestion that a different view of things might be nearer the truth of existence as he sees it”.

Conclusion

O’Brien’s sense of his own Catholicism is defined to an extent by his relationship with Joyce. O’Brien asserts that Joyce “palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic” with humour.

O’Brien’s contemporaries at UCD were divided between those who had a stake in an independent Ireland and those who did not. “Only the intellectuals  felt uncomfortable, for it was they who were most irked by the Catholic triumphalism, the pious philistinism, the Puritan morality and the peasant or petit bourgeois outlook of the new state. But they were in an ambiguous position, though one which had its compensations, for in the first place they were themselves inheritors of whatever privileges were going, and in the second they found it almost impossible to break with formal Catholicism, either in belief or practice.

The hold of Catholicism in Ireland in those years was partly parental. To disavow the faith, whether in public or private, was a gesture so extreme that most people who had doubts or reservations suppressed them because it would cause their parents too much suffering, might even ‘break their hearts’. True, Joyce had managed the business a quarter of a century or so before, but the extreme song and dance he had made of it showed how difficult he found it; and he had, after all, to refuse to kneel at his mother’s bedside and  to go into exile.

As Cronin puts it “self-interest, self deception, hypocrisy and fraud bulk large in all human affairs; and however much Myles na gCopaleen  might devote himself to exposing them, his basic assumption is that they will continue to do so; nor does he ever show any gleam of admiration or enthusiasm for the countervailing modes of human behaviour, be they gallant, generous, visionary or, come to that, rational”.

Claude Cockburn, in his 1973 introduction to an edition of O’Brien’s Stories and Plays, referred  to “two qualities of conditions which affect Irish writers not, by any means, exclusively, but with rare and particular intensity. Or you could call them two aspects of the same force. Fear of imminent hell or heaven, the sense of doom in the Irish Catholic heritage, can be seen as oppressive, constrictive”.

Cockburn suggests that the Catholic heritage was not necessarily restrictive for O’Brien. “Recognised and understood, the most rigid limitations can be transformed into productive conditions of achievement”. It is unfortunate that O’Brien’s achievements have been posthumous and that he did not transform these limitations into greater success or personal happiness in his lifetime. Nevertheless, O’Brien’s best writing is a cathartic expression of the fallen nature of humanity which bring pleasure for his readers.

 

 

 

Peter Grimsdale – Perfect Night or Perfect Fright?

 

 

A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday September 5 2010.

 

 

grimMr Grimsdale

 

 

Parachute Journalists

I wonder how many of you out there, including journalists,  get as irritated as I do when films and novels, often written by journalists taking up the trade of fiction,  glamorise the exploits of journalists.

I got myself into a rather acrimonious exchange with an editor (of a western publication) with whom, only a few days previously I had been having a friendly e-mail correspondence. I will name no names in order to protect the guilty, but this is the gist of what happened.

I was asked for my opinion about  an article on Sri Lanka by a western journalist. I am not a subscriber to the view of some Sri Lankan commentators that the crimes and hypocrisy of the west bar any westerner, politician or writer, from criticising Sri Lanka. I do however, expect some cognisance of the complexity of what is happening here. I do expect an avoidance of generalisation and stereotypes. There were many quite ludicrous factual howlers in the article. My view that the article in question provided a distorted picture of the ground reality today in Sri Lanka caused offence to the editor and the author, who was quite abusive.

The writer had visited Sri Lanka, dropped in at  the IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps (one of the charges against the Government of Sri Lanka  was that they were keeping journalists away from the camps, but never mind) and talked to a number of people. Then he flew  home and wrote his article. He had written about Sri Lanka before so his publishers may think of him as an expert on the subject. He had also written about Chile, the Tuaregs, the Kurds, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, Nepal, India, Iran, Spain, Indonesia, Afghanistan. Jacques of all trades?

Although the western editor accused me of personal point-scoring, I have no objection to this particular writer trying to make a crust writing about Sri Lanka and many other topics. What I have more concern about is the infantilising nature of delusion in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”.

Delusions

I am often disappointed when I spend my hard-earned money after reading a delusional book review. Here is my own review of a book about which The Guardian misled me. Martin Lewin said:  “Peter Grimsdale can tell a convincing story with writing that is cliché-free and utterly enthralling”. I like thrillers (although I often afterwards have to clean my brain of bad writing by reading the cold heartless prose of the likes of John Banville or Samuel Beckett). The idea of a thriller based in Sri Lanka was (mildly) thrilling. When I was pottering about in Barefoot, the estimable  Laurence handed me the book and recommended it.

The author, Peter Grimsdale, worked for the BBC as a documentary producer and visited Sri Lanka in 1984.  His first novel Perfect Night, published in 2008, was based on that experience. He later worked for Channel 4, with whose works Sri Lankans will be familiar, “where I was head of History, Religion and Features and indulged my passion for cars in several programme commissions”. He admits responsibility for being “in charge of Big Brother 3, the one that gave the world Jade Goody”. I don’t know whether that came under history or religion.

Concatenation of Cliché

Before moving on to the wider implications of this kind of work let us examine Matthew Lewin’s claim that Grimsdale’s  writing is  “cliché-free”. The brilliantly strange Irish writer  Flann O’Brien produced a “Catechism of Cliché”.  “A unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print.”

Orwell wrote that a writer could shirk responsibility by throwing the  “mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. “

After a while I got somewhat bored with noting the clichés in Perfect Night but here are a few from the beginning of the book. Here is a dollop of stale language from page one itself. “It was like the tide coming in…I was engulfed”. “I was more of a risk-taker then.” “The opportunity I had been desperate for.” “Laid up with a stomach bug.” “Thick cloud pressed down on Colombo.” “I felt my mouth go dry.”

Excruciating Prose

It is possible to be a successful author without being a very good writer. WB Yeats was very bad speller. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe both relied heavily on the editing skills of Maxwell Perkins. Raymond Carver would have been a very different writer if Gordon Lish had not lived.

As is customary with contemporary authors, Grimsdale thanks a large number of people for their help. Judging from some of his writing without the help of friends Grimsdale is not a natural. On his website he committed solecisms like: “more than my fare share of happiness” “whatever I did next would be total emersion”.

Some of the purple prose is worthy of Barbara Cartland. “I had barely touched a man before. I had so many tears stored up and once they’d started, that was it…everything was different”. “I didn’t care about Greer and Malik anymore. All that mattered was in my arms.” “I tightened my grip on Anita and whispered,  ‘I love you’. It was something I should have said a long time ago. “

I am surprised that Grimsdale did not win a prize in The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. The rationale of the Award is “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”. Grimsdale writes: ”The feel of her body under the thin fabric was thrilling. Her breast brushed my side. I held her close and she covered my hand with hers. The first cool breeze in days lifted her hair and it wafted against my cheek. I stopped and she turned. Her face glowed. I pressed her towards me. “I ‘need to kiss you.’ She touched my mouth with her fingertips. ‘Not here’.

There is a good deal more of this sort of thing  when they get indoors. “She took my hands and pressed them against her breasts…The smell of her was all around me.”

Pass the sick bucket. Do those reviewers really think that is good writing? Are they just friends of the author?

Egregious Faux Sri Lanka

I understand that HRF Keating wrote most of his Inspector Ghote books, with the aid of a Bombay street map and telephone directories, without actually visiting India. I do not doubt that Grimsdale did visit Sri Lanka but it does not seem like the Sri Lanka I know. He might have benefited had he consulted a street map and a telephone directory.

I always sense that a writer is hovering between ignorance and condescension about the land of Johnny Foreigner when I read references to “tuk-tuks” and “the locals”. In his acknowledgements, Grimsdale  thanks Chantal Krishnadasan and Shirani Sabaratnam for vetting “all the Sri Lankan and Tamil material”. They must have fallen asleep on the job.

Some examples of faux Sri Lanka:

  • Greer and Nick are having dinner and wine at a hotel populated by cliché annoying European tourists (you know, not adventurous types like our characters).  A small girl appears at the table selling pens. I have never encountered this in a Colombo hotel catering to Europeans. “A throng of children crowding round, hands outstretched, unsmiling faces engaged in the serious business of extracting cash from new arrivals too polite to shoo them away”. What hotel management would allow this?
  • There are references to the “British Consulate” in Colombo. Was it not called the High Commission in 1995? It was when my father-in-law was working there alongside Anton Balasingham in the 60s.
  • A boatman charges 50 rupees to take our intrepid journos out to a cruiser “almost in open sea”. Nick was “in too much of a hurry to haggle”. Some foreigners are notoriously stingy in their transactions with “the locals” but in 1995, 50 rupees was worth less than half of a British pound.
  • Film is processed at “Witjerwarra Chemist. 310 Galle Road Colombo 7.” According to Arjuna’s Street Guide the postal address for Galle Road is Colombo 3. I have never heard the name “Witjerwarra” in Sri Lanka before and a Google search throws up nothing.
  • There is a reference to the “Northern Territory”. Isn’t that in Australia?
  • Dr Sivalingam smokes a “bindi”. In Indian restaurants bindi  is “lady’s finger” or okra. An odd choice of smoking material but I have seen people trying to get high smoking bananas!
  • Greer has what seems to be meant as  harrowing journey from the hill country to Colombo because her “driver was detained at a roadblock near Kandy”. Would that have been harrowing even in 1995?

There’s more of this kind of stuff but I don’t want to bore you. The general effect is the familiar one of dilettantes exploiting our country for local colour for their own fantasies.

Journalist Hero Irritated by Facts

The narrator Nick Roker first arrives in Sri Lanka to be met by the beautiful Tamil, Anita Jeyarajah. Her job is to educate him about the country but this irritates him. In this he could be the epitome of many western journalists. His excuse about just wanting to rest after his flight is not convincing. “Over the next two days she delivered a continuous monologue on the marvels of the island and her faith in the peace process as we criss-crossed Colombo by tuk-tuk. After the sixth meeting I called a halt. I grabbed her clipboard and drew a line through all the other appointmenrts. ‘No more old farts. I can’t make a film about peacemakers if I can’t see the war’ “.

Do you see how representative this is? Like many western journalists he is not interested in the positive aspects of Sri Lanka that enthuse a Sri Lankan. He wants the glamour of war,  not boring peace. Incidentally, Roker’s previous experience was making holiday programmes. This nicely underlines the link between the fantasy world of tourism and the delusions of “serious” journalism.

Charismatic Journalists

The reporter Roker is working with, Greer Harmon, is a cliché  – enigmatic, charismatic, (so we are told). A glamour-journo that one might expect to see in a  “major motion picture”. She is a writer but dresses like a warrior. Here is some more from the cliché cabinet: ”Her combats were caught at the waist with a wide belt, tightly fastened. A bleached shirt with epaulettes completed the dressed-for-action look. Her hair, a dusty golden blonde, cascaded over her shoulders. She took off her sunglasses. Her eyes were a shade of grey-green that I didn’t think eyes came in”.

Years later Roker asks Edgington, the producer, why he had sent Harmon to Sri Lanka. “She travelled a lot. I let her. She was good at finding stories. Greer said she wanted to do something about the peace process with the Tamils. I couldn’t see it myself.” Note that this is not peace talks with the Tamil Tigers but with “the Tamils”.

Identifying with your Hero

Thriller writers sometimes use their heroes to project a more exciting version of themselves. Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta books started off well but deteriorated badly as she projected onto Scarpetta and every thing in the entire universe seemed to relate to her. Kathy Reichs became even worse with the TV version of her books.

Nick’s  second visit to Sri Lanka comes a decade after the first one. In those  few days of the first visit he made a big impression on Anita and also, seemingly, on the course of Sri Lankan, and, indeed, world  history. The sinister Tanager(that would have been a good role for the late lamented Ian Richardson) tells Nick: “No government would want you loose on the streets”. Anita drools about him making a difference and “sighed. ‘Your energy. Your determination. That’s what I loved in you.’”

Does Grimsdale see himself in Nick Roker, who blushes when Greer says she imagines he could have his pick of pretty girls. Harmon is noted for not taking an interest in men but, inevitably, she hits the sack with Nick.

Conclusion

Perfect Night is not actually about Sri Lanka. I will not spoil the plot for you (actually I have read the book twice and can’t  explain the story). It seems to be about  international terrorism, Palestinians, Mossad, CIA, government cover-ups involving multiple murders. Tamil terrorism is not seriously addressed. It is just a sideshow. People are dropping like flies (pardon the cliché) all around Nick but neither the Tigers nor the GOSL seem to be to blame –  I can’t  tell you why they are dying.

Perfect Night is just fiction, just entertainment. I have no objection to a writer trying to make a few bob writing about Sri Lanka. I am concerned  about  the infantilising nature of delusion generally in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”. It gives me a queasy feeling when real and tragic events are served up as entertainment and little effort is made to get beyond simplistic stereotypes or to bother with accuracy.

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