The Saturday Paper

Douglas Stuart Young Mungo

- Daniel Keene is a playwright and critic.

As with his Booker Prize-winning debut, Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart’s second novel, Young Mungo, describes a grim world. It’s populated by people who are crushed by political and economic decisions made by distant bureaucrac­ies devoid of imaginatio­n or empathy.

In the shadow of Thatcher’s gutting of Britain’s industrial north, Glasgow is in steep decline. Its housing estates are whirlpools of mass unemployme­nt, despair and violence. An army of redundant workers sinks into boredom and frustratio­n and young men wage an ongoing sectarian war, with running battles between Catholic and Protestant gangs punctuatin­g the tedium of binge-drinking and empty hours spent watching television.

War isn’t confined to the wastelands at the city’s edges. Domestic and sexual violence seep into bedrooms and kitchens, poisoning relationsh­ips, destroying families, filling every moment with dread, closing off the possibilit­y of friendship or joy.

The novel’s structure moves in two directions. Alternatin­g chapters describe events leading up to a critical moment, a movement titled “The January Before”, and events leading away from that moment titled “The May After”. Not knowing what is going to happen while at the same time witnessing its consequenc­es creates a deeply uneasy tension. When the central event is finally revealed, the dread and sorrow at the heart of Mungo Hamilton’s story wash through the book like a tidal wave.

For 15-year-old Mungo, a shy, inarticula­te boy full of nervous tics and twitches, his home is a purgatory from which he cannot imagine an escape. Everyone around him is determined to “make a man of him” in a violent, hypermascu­line, homophobic world of frustratio­n and the barely understood desire to cause hurt.

His older siblings, Jodie and Hamish, couldn’t be more different from Mungo, or from each other. Jodie offers him comfort when she can, but her own young life is crushed under the weight of men’s needs and demands. She only has so much to give and she too needs to escape. The children’s father was killed in a knife fight between rival gangs before Mungo was born. Since his death, their mother, Maureen, has sunk into a miasma of self-pity and alcoholism.

Hamish is the leader of his own Protestant gang. He shifts unpredicta­bly, in the blink of an eye, from tender, brotherly affection to violent, physical cruelty. His mercurial nature keeps Mungo on edge, trying to keep his distance, but he is inevitably pulled into Hamish’s world. Hamish wants to “make a man” of Mungo and the boy is punished for anything considered a “weakness”.

When Mungo meets James – a Catholic boy who keeps a dovecote on a barren strip of ground behind Mungo’s tenement – barely acknowledg­ed desires quickly come to the surface. Frightened by his feelings, but also liberated by them, he reaches out to James who, despite his own fears of being exposed as “one of those”, takes Mungo gently in his arms. In their playful and tentative steps towards intimacy, the joy that Mungo feels at James’s touch is achingly palpable.

In lesser hands, some of the characters in Young Mungo could appear as Dickensian caricature­s. Stuart combines formidable literary skills with profound empathy for his creations, which means that each character – even the darkest and most violent – at some point reveals, even if only fleetingly, a fragility that is heart-stopping in its clarity and directness.

You won’t often find the people who populate Young Mungo in contempora­ry

British fiction. They’re usually confined to the background of middle-class narratives – jeering football fans, anonymous henchmen, drink-addled scroungers, signposts of social disintegra­tion, the despised “other”.

Stuart’s characters are close kin to the people who inhabit the writing of

James Kelman, whose stories spill out from Glasgow tenements and bedsits in angry and abrasive prose that can also be laughout-loud funny and deeply compassion­ate. Also a native Glaswegian, Stuart has some of the same gifts as Kelman: he can carve out of rough, vernacular speech a startlingl­y vivid and expressive language. Its cadences drive the narrative and articulate detailed, delicate portraits of characters and their lived experience.

This novel has echoes of Shuggie Bain, which is also set in Glasgow, but Young Mungo is a darker story. There is more violence here, and it occurs in a much less forgiving environmen­t. These brutalitie­s exist in Shuggie Bain, but just under the surface; here they are exposed in all their terrible reality. Perhaps after the success of Shuggie Bain, this is the story that Stuart needed – and was able – to tell.

The similariti­es between the two novels are not mere repetition, any more than the shambling characters that appear time and again in Samuel Beckett’s prose are copies of each other. Like Beckett, Stuart is looking at his creations from different angles. Vermeer is famous for how the light falls on his subjects: it’s always sunlight through windows. But in every painting it is a different light.

What Stuart achieves in his portrait of this unforgivin­g world is a small miracle. In the midst of the damage are moments of compassion and forgivenes­s. The love between Mungo and James is a haven for both of them, but they both know that it is also dangerous; there is always the threat of discovery by those who hate what they have discovered in each other, those who would punish them for being who they are.

Floating on a sea of loss and damage, this love transforms a story populated with broken lives into a lament that contains a barely imaginable hope and a rare kind of beauty.

Picador, 400pp, $32.99

in C-sharp Minor, Op-66no. 4. Why does it resonate with you? There is such a beautiful contrast between the A and B sections. It’s as if that middle section is the calm centre of a hurricane with a storm raging on either side of it. You would not necessaril­y know from this dazzling frenzy of notes that awaits in the middle that there is this serenity and one of the most achingly beautiful melodies ever. I’ve always been drawn to that. And I don’t know why, to me, the ending of that song, even thinking about it I almost want to cry. It is the most peaceful, gorgeous ending of any piece of music I’ve ever heard in my life.

It’s the way the right hand does this pedal tone and it just repeats and repeats in this trance-like figure. And his left hand plays a melody in the lower register before [you play] the melody in the higher register. It has this resonance and is so grounding. The way this melody is juxtaposed against this trance. The harmony that you hear just breaks my heart every time.

I was struck by how it rises and falls and expresses so many moods and tempos – there seems to be great sorrow, a sense of peace, acceptance. How does it inspire your own work?

There is a figure in music called the arpeggio, where there are four notes that you can play at one time. With Chopin, his left hand is moving at all times and playing different harmonies. But the individual lines are moving in a way that you can trace a distinct melody through all of them.

There is something about that I just love. There is order in that, purpose in that and economy in that. That is what I strive to do when I write. I try to have order in it. I try not to do anything superfluou­s. I try to be economical with my choices and try to have all my choices be melodic.

My aim was to make each individual string line of Hamilton its own singable melody. Even if you can’t pick out an individual’s part within the group context, the goal is for there to be a harmony made out of multiple melodies going at once – both in a musical sense and in a spiritual sense.

In Fantaisie-impromptu, it feels like when the melody is going to end, it doesn’t. When I [speak] to actors I talk about that. The line needs to keep going. You need to move through space and time so that the last thought begets the next thought. In life, we [use] runon sentences and don’t realise. We go onto the next thing and don’t realise. There’s this continuati­on of life just cycling on.

In Hamilton, Lin-manuel’s language is contempora­ry – but there is something timeless about the music. Chopin composed his work in the 19th century but it still speaks to us more than 100 years later. What, to you, makes a piece of music endure?

I think the power of a good melody is timeless, the power of a good hook is timeless. I think nothing beats something that is solidly constructe­d – light and dark, tension and release, an expectatio­n being set, an expectatio­n being met.

I think that is something that Linmanuel possesses when he writes and something that Chopin possesses. There’s an on-ramp for you to get on board and follow someone where they lead you. There are times when music actually has barricades in front of it, when you can’t get in and you can’t understand. How does this person want to make me feel? Do they want me to join them or am I watching them behind a pane of glass?

To me, Hamilton is really about how you rise above adversity. Chopin suffered respirator­y problems and he died young – at 39. How do you think his life informed the power of his music? I don’t want to romanticis­e his suffering but his music is so deeply felt.

I think people can choose to express their pain in different ways. Isn’t it amazing that someone who was in pain could still find the beauty in music? Someone else could experience the same but their DNA could be wired in such a way that they felt that life mistreated them and the manifestat­ion in the music would be really thorny and not expressive at all. That is probably a testament to who he was as a person.

Chopin was also an immigrant – he moved from Poland to Paris, he took Polish folk songs and worked them into his music. Your roots are Cuban–american. The new animated Netflix film Vivo – where you’re again collaborat­ing with Lin-manuel Miranda – sees you return to your Cuban– American roots, musically speaking. What has that meant for you as an artist?

I had the opportunit­y to work with Gloria Estefan – what bigger Cuban–american artist is there? And Juan de Marcos [González] from the Buena Vista Social Club. I was extremely proud that I could celebrate that.

It is a similar to the way Chopin worked Polish folk songs into his mazurkas. There is something about where you are from. That is what you keep coming back to, it’s what your earliest memories might be. That’s what Vivo

did for me. My mum would hear a song from Vivo that would remind her of a song from her childhood and she would just start sobbing.

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 ?? Heritage Images / Getty Images (above), supplied (below) ?? Detail of Henryk Siemiradzk­i’s painting Chopin Playing the Piano in Prince Radziwill’s Salon (1887), and Alex Lacamoire (below).
Heritage Images / Getty Images (above), supplied (below) Detail of Henryk Siemiradzk­i’s painting Chopin Playing the Piano in Prince Radziwill’s Salon (1887), and Alex Lacamoire (below).
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