Monday, July 28, 2014

Donal McLaughlin's "Beheading the Virgin Mary and Other Stories": Review

Seventeen stories alternate between an Irish boy raised in Derry whose family moves to Glasgow, and other tales, many about Irish people living among Scots, uneasy about their situation, and growing distant within themselves and amidst their neighbors. Donal McLaughlin's upbringing, born in 1961 in Derry, to a family who left for Scotland around 1970, reflects that of his fictional O'Donnell clan, and the fortunes of Liam, the young protagonist. Preferring a blend of dry detachment and steady immersion in a different type of Scots-Irish experience than that which dominates in Ulster, McLaughlin explores The Troubles and the gradual drift from religious allegiance and political loyalty which has characterized many of his generation, in Ireland and its diaspora.

"Big Trouble" set in late 1968 presages the burst of violence the following summer in the North of Ireland. It juxtaposes the O'Donnell children acting out a Civil Rights march for Catholic equality which is mixed, in their confused understanding, with the traditional Orange Order parades reminding the province's minority of the claims to domination by the Unionist majority. The little ones lack the awareness of their parents as to who is representing what; McLaughlin adapts a clever perspective for his play-act.

By the time of "Enough to Make You Hurt" four years later, the indifferent or dull reactions of those in Scotland who hear of the Bloody Sunday protests in Derry again represent the clash of one people with another, as the Irish Catholics in Glasgow tend to lose their accents and their identity the more they remain overseas, even if their sectarian faith in the Celtic football club persists as their true icon. Liam's father resents the lack of compassion shown by the assimilated Irish-Scots, who cheer the team but offer at best only lip service to pain felt by those who learn the names of dead Derrymen.

"A Day Out" in 1974 finds Liam beginning to blend in among his classmates in Glasgow. Hearing of I.R.A. threats to the Queen on the radio during a bus excursion, he fears retaliation from his mates. "Would they turn on him? Then he minded his Scottish accent now but. That he'd lost his brogue. Only the boys he went to primary wi knew he was from Ireland originally. Others wouldn't know unless they told them."  He relies on the trust of his new comrades to protect himself from old hates.

The old ways tug on another character, who in "Somewhere Down the Line" lies to his wife about going to the "[Cel]'Tic" match so he can wrangle quiet time to visit the People's Palace in Glasgow. There, he sees exhibits about the work his father and grandfather had done there, and he relishes the intimate contact with a past that few care about, given "fitba" and crowds as a boisterous alternative.

McLaughlin handles such figures well. In the stand-out story "The Way to a Man's Heart", Sean, a Derry emigrant, drives over half of Scotland, up to Inverness. His assignation with a woman, herself longer over from Ireland, turns poignant. He came for sex with her, but he stays for her hearty stew.

Another wanderer, the enigmatic "Kenny Ryan", claims darkly to have left Derry, but the O'Donnell's diligent inquiries among those back home cannot account for the reasons Kenny now insists on puttering around the O'Donnell's home so persistently. This mysterious miser hovers, and lingers in the memory of the reader, too. At his best, McLaughlin conjures up such lonely Irish men, still adrift.

The dour tones of Irish Catholicism echo, but fewer in Liam's generation pay homage to the likes of the elderly man whose favorite prayers included "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony", or the sustained abuse uncovered sexually at home by a cruel father and in the parish at the hands of a cunning priest, a difficult subject limned sparely and effectively in "We Now Know". In a vignette "The Secret of How to Love", a son who admits his father told his mother to her face that he did not love her finds in his father's posthumous file of "Useful Quotes" tucked between saints' pious aphorisms this: "Love is not a feeling/ It is an act of will." The narrator adds: "Anonymous, I take it."

Liam's maturation follows, and while later stories dissipate the force of the earlier ones as music, school, and the Continent beckon, in his eighteenth year, 1979, his studies in Germany and German remind him of sinister echoes. "Dachau-Derry-Knock" attempts to, through Liam's associations, link the tin drum Oscar beats at Nazi rallies in the 1978 film adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel with the mass rallies for Mass held by the new pope, John Paul II. He appealed in his Irish visit to the I.R.A. to follow the path of peace, and this controversial message, within the tangled context of hunger strikes by I.R.A. prisoners for political status, and the clash of the Catholic with the Irish Republican ideologies, made for a delicate situation, or a hopelessly conflicted one, within the Irish public. As with James Joyce's portrayals of bickering within extended families over past political debates pitting men of violence against men of peace, the O'Donnells fail to reach concord between the two factions.

Weary of this, Liam agrees with his Gran's advice: "You're better off leaving it, sure. Not saying nothing." Again, rather typical Irish advice. In a manner again reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus' choice to leave Ireland for the Continent, Liam for university resolves to emigrate from Scotland.

The title story rushes headlong through its desecrating incident in compressed prose. Taking place on Boxing Day around now, it shows the O'Donnells leaving many traditions behind, unsurprisingly. A "bonus" story recounts a seaside ghost, again delving into the O'Donnell family McLaughlin can't yet leave behind, even if Liam has promised to do so. For, like Dedalus, he's back among the clan again.

As a translator of Swiss-German fiction (see my 5 June 2014 review of The Alp by Arno Camenisch), McLaughlin appears to have achieved Liam's ambition. These stories work best when tracking loners, those who cannot fit into the ethnic identities of their counterparts or cultural descendents abroad. Anticipating how this rarely explored dimension of recent Irish-to-Scot emigration plays off the legacy of The Troubles and of Irish-Catholic assimilation as religious ties unravel, McLaughlin follows the way his early life has transpired, if as in Joycean fashion, ambling into its preoccupied, idiosyncratic fictions. Out of familiar concerns of youth and adolescence, he plots his own direction.
(6-12-14 to PopMatters; Amazon US 7-28-14)

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