Hell is Other Ir­ish Peo­ple

The London Magazine - - CONOR CARVILLE -

The Dirty Dust, Mártin Ó Cad­hain trans­lated by Alan Tit­ley. Yale Univer­sity Press. 2015. 328pp.. 16.99 (hard­cover

- rick Ka­vanagh in The Great Hunger, par­o­dy­ing the Ir­ish re­vival’s cult of ru­ral life. The cast in The Dirty Dust of the twentieth cen­tury was pre­oc­cu­pied with the very stuff of the land, who owned it and what it meant, Mártín Ó’Cad­hain takes this urge to its ul­ti­mate con­clu­sion, thrust­ing his char­ac­ters deep down into the soil, where they con­tinue their ex­is­tence much as they did up above: gos­sip­ing, back­bit­ing, mock­ing, jok­ing and ar­gu­ing (above all ar­gu­ing). Hell is other peo for the gate to this par­tic­u­lar un­der­world.

Bring­ing up the don of French ex­is­ten­tial­ism in a re­view of a book orig­i­nally pub­lished in the Ir­ish lan­guage might seem odd, but as many com­men­ta­tors have pointed out, this is a res­o­lutely mod­ern, per­haps even post­mod­ern, novel. Writ­ten al­most com­pletely in di­a­logue, the book con­stantly al­ter­nates be­tween voices, dip­ping in and out of a mul­ti­tude of con­versa In­ferno set in book has a logic of its own, which is eas­ily picked up, so that one soon recog­nises the char­ac­ters through trade­mark ob­ses­sions and turns of phrase. Like Flann O’Brien then, Ó’Cad­hain must be seen in the tra­di­tion of Joyce other echt Gaels that O’Brien sent up so glee­fully in An Béal Bocht.

In this sense Ó’Cad­hain’s strange and mar­vel­lous novel be­longs along­side a raft of other Euro­pean nov­els that have rel­a­tively re­cently emerged from

out­side the bound­aries, lin­guis­tic and oth­er­wise, nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with Euro­pean mod­ernism. I am think­ing here of Wi­told Gom­bri­wicz or Bruno that mod­ernism had set rolling and ran with it in their own lan­guages, of­ten por­tray­ing small town or pro­vin­cial scenes, but do­ing so with a kind of fever­ish, macabre, some­times ob­scene brio. Far from be­ing an anachro­nism more di­rectly than does the ru­ral re­al­ism of his con­tem­po­raries like Seán Ó’Faoláin or Frank O’Con­nor.

Ir­ish pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety in the twentieth cen­tury, con­di­tions that some­times echo those en­dured by the writ­ers men­tioned ear­lier on the other side of Europe, though the sit­u­a­tion there was many mag­ni­tudes more com­plex mi­nor­ity in a frag­ile newly-in­de­pen­dent polity over­shad­owed by a dom­i­nant neigh­bour. Heav­ily in­volved in un­der­ground and dis­si­dent pol­i­tics, he soon sacked from his job as a school­teacher and then later, in 1939, was im­pris­oned for the du­ra­tion of WWII. It was while in prison that he re­ally started writ­ing, and it was in the pe­riod im­me­di­ately af­ter the war that he wrote Cré na Cille.

The short dis­tance be­tween in­ter­ment and in­tern­ment is not only or­tho­graphic. Read­ing the novel, with its ca­coph­ony of voices con­tend­ing in the dark, it is hard not to imag­ine what it was like af­ter lights-out in the ram­shackle con­di­tions he en­dured. Death is a kind of prison, the book im­plies, and Ire­land it­self a vast in­tern­ment camp pop­u­lated by the liv­ing dead. And yet hav­ing said this there is a strongly utopian el­e­ment to the novel. De­spite the of­ten can­tan­ker­ous, com­bat­ive tone of the ex­changes, it is al­ways a com­mu­nity on which we are eaves­drop­ping, not sim­ply a col­lec­tion of in­di­vid­u­als. As the trans­la­tor Alan Tit­ley points out in his ex­cel phrases be­gun by some­one else, or throw­ing out frag­men­tary lines from -

ton. It is in lan­guage above all that Ó’Cad­hain sees the col­lec­tive en­er­gies of his spec­tral pop­u­la­tion ex­pressed. Tit­ley con­trasts the rib­ald vi­tal­ity of Ó’Cad­hain’s orig­i­nal text with what he sees as the par­lous cur­rent state of the English lan­guage, whether spo­ken in Ire­land or the UK. And yet part of the charm of his won­der­ful translation is the way he is not afraid to raid fact that the char­ac­ters of The Dirty Dust are able to con­stantly re­fer to each other as mup­pets or cheap­skate dick­heads sug­gests that the pop­u­lar, ver­nac­u­lar pas­sions into which Ó’Cad­hain tapped are present in our own lan­guage still.

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