An­drew O’Ha­gan’s new novel

Mem­ory and dis­il­lu­sion – at home and on the bat­tle­field – are at the heart of An­drew O’Ha­gan’s lat­est novel, says Lucy Daniel

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Cover Story -

Anovel is a place where past and present ver­sions of one per­son can co­ex­ist, and in his fifth novel An­drew O’Ha­gan mov­ingly ex­plores the way the “flot­sam” of a life can rise to the sur­face as old age and mem­ory go about their strange and poignant work. We meet 82-year-old Anne, who lives in shel­tered ac­com­mo­da­tion in Salt­coats, Ayr­shire. With the on­set of de­men­tia “an en­tire ver­sion of her­self [is] mov­ing into the shade”, but her life’s mys­ter­ies are wait­ing to be un­cov­ered. Anne’s es­tranged daugh­ter Alice tells her doc­tor she wishes she could spend half an hour with her mother as a young woman. “She hasn’t gone,” he replies. “Quite the op­po­site. She’s com­ing back.” Anne, it tran­spires, was a lead­ing light in doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy in the Six­ties, de­voted to cap­tur­ing the every­day but also delv­ing into “a world beyond the ob­vi­ous” to see its truth. Her grand­son Luke was a thought­ful, book­ish boy who to ev­ery­one’s sur­prise joined the Army. Capt Luke Camp­bell of the 1st Royal Western Fusiliers is re­turn­ing home from Afghanistan, at the depth of his dis­il­lu­sion, to see the woman who “helped him to be­lieve that a readi­ness for art was equal to a ca­pac­ity for life”. The ques­tion is what hap­pened to cut her off from a fu­ture full of pos­si­bil­ity? De­spite the pull of Anne’s story, the book’s most en­gag­ing mo­ments are in Afghanistan. The sol­diers, av­er­age age 18, wait for ac­tion in the un­bear­able heat of a troop car­rier, where the Scot­tish and Scouse ver­nac­u­lars per­me­ate the ban­ter of young men raised on Xbox war games. O’Ha­gan’s nar­ra­tor refers to th­ese scathingly as re­cruit­ment tools, pulling the young­sters to war by their thumbs. Gaming is their shad­owy other life; it leads them from their own dark rooms to the scorch­ing desert sun. In Kan­da­har, in a fug of heat and drugs, they are shep­herded by peo­ple within their ranks and with­out into an abom­inable sit­u­a­tion made more aw­ful be­cause the reader sees it com­ing from a long way off. It is a jug­gling act keep­ing the sto­ries of both Afghanistan and Scot­land in the air. Some of the over­lap comes in se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tions about Scot­tish na­tion­al­ism in the con­text of what Luke sees as the dis­in­te­gra­tion of na­tional bound­aries (“money has im­ploded. Re­li­gion has gone mad. Pri­vacy is dis­ap­pear­ing”), con­firm­ing O’Ha­gan’s need as a bril­liant es­say­ist and jour­nal­ist to be stim­u­lat­ingly con­tem­po­rary. There are in­sight­ful glimpses of sub­sidiary char­ac­ters, such as a wife’s silent judg­ment of her hus­band sniff­ing his bowl of soup in a restau­rant, or the sym­pa­thetic de­scrip­tions of squad­dies on a big night out back home. What de­men­tia sug­gests about the self – the in­ter­nal life tak­ing you beyond your­self – be­comes the novel’s press­ing con­cern. Anne has, or had, a “se­cret life” alone in her pho­to­graphic dark­room. Then there is Luke’s other men­tor, Ma­jor Scul­lion, the schol­arly sol­dier with a fond­ness for Ki­pling, whose “great com­pan­ion had al­ways been his imag­i­na­tion”. Scul­lion, who has wit­nessed the unimag­in­able in North­ern Ire­land, Sierra Leone and Kosovo, at­tests to the idea of the self as a por­ous, non-per­ma­nent thing; “he had any num­ber of selves to call on and he didn’t favour one in par­tic­u­lar”. If he is called on to do un­speak­able things, “to him, at some level, it was al­ways another per­son do­ing it”. Is this be­cause Scul­lion is an ac­tor, is it a fault in his make-up, or is it just that each per­son is many peo­ple? In which case, what value can be as­cribed to their “per­sis­tent idea of them­selves as good men”? Ki­pling is an ap­pro­pri­ate shade to be flit­ting through th­ese pages. Though O’Ha­gan does not lean too heav­ily on the metaphor­i­cal mean­ings of his ti­tle’s “il­lu­mi­na­tions” – taken from the lights at Black­pool – Anne’s pho­to­graphic work drama­tises the process of rev­e­la­tion that the book de­scribes. Scul­lion has ro­man­tic ideas about Alexan­der the Great and civil­i­sa­tion, bring­ing light to peo­ple across the great dark­ness, but he is leav­ing be­hind another lost world, of schol­arly elites and seclu­sion in ivory tow­ers, and his even­tual dis­in­te­gra­tion speaks vol­umes. In our own con­tra­dic­tory age of pho­to­graphic ma­nip­u­la­tion and per­pet­ual pho­to­graphic re­portage, O’Ha­gan sets the ques­tion of whether a pho­to­graph can truly rep­re­sent a real thing against the old-fash­ioned, atavis­tic pull of the Black­pool il­lu­mi­na­tions. He sug­gests ques­tions about al­le­giance and loy­alty, and the record of his­tory. O’Ha­gan’s abil­ity to sum up a life in the most poignant, mat­ter-of-fact way is rem­i­nis­cent of Ki­pling, too. Of Anne he writes: “She left her­self be­hind in a room, and that way sur­vived her own po­ten­tial, un­til her mind be­gan to fray.” That idea of sur­viv­ing one’s own po­ten­tial is one of the book’s gloomier bur­dens. It’s a mea­sure of O’Ha­gan’s com­pas­sion that after bal­anc­ing th­ese sto­ries of war and fam­ily – brav­ing the bat­tle­field and brav­ing the pass­ing of time – the ul­ti­mate note is hope­ful and almost gen­tle, of some­thing that seems real and vi­tal.

Bal­anc­ing act: An­drew O’Ha­gan’s fifth novel trav­els from Ayr­shire to Afghanistan as it ex­plores themes of per­sonal and na­tional dis­in­te­gra­tion

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