A Long, Long Way
by Sebastian Barry
After reading and enjoying The Secret Scripture courtesy of dovegreyreader it seemed only prudent to take heed of her claim that his previous novel was for her 'the best book that never won the Booker'. Quite a statement, on a topic which has even spawned its own competition in the blogosphere (in which Barry failed to make the cut). We won't get into a debate now about which books should have won when, but I think it's fair to say that in 2005, in a very strong field, John Banville's 'The Sea' was a surprise winner. Not having read it myself I can't really comment, but I loved a couple of the others and A Long Long Way absolutely floored me. I'm not a man given to tears and maybe I was just a bit tired but as I read the final few pages of this book I wept like a great big girly.
Before writing this post I had the good fortune to read an essay by Keith Jeffery in the Times Literary Supplement, in which he wrote about the Irish perspective on The Great War, in particular how this was expressed through theatre. Sean O'Casey's 'The Silver Tassie' (which was later adapted into an opera) and Frank McGuiness's much later play 'Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme' are two famous examples. Many men from Ireland fought for the Allied forces on the understanding that there would be Home Rule once victory had been won in Europe (many men from Ulster joined up for the very opposite reason of course but as Barry says in this book 'It was a deep, dark maze of intentions, anyhow'). But the shifting of Irish politics continued whilst those men were away, culminating in the Easter Rising of 1916 and life for Irish soldiers in the British Army became increasingly tough, seen as unreliable at best by those they served with and treacherous if not treasonable by those at home. There has been a popular conception that the fallout from the war, when it did eventually end, resulted in a form of national amnesia, with many people choosing to forget that those they knew might have fought for the British whilst Republicans were being killed at home, something that Jeffery refutes with his very interesting essay.
Barry's novel picks up on many of these themes. His hero is Willie Dunne, son of a policeman, whose 'damnable height' never reaches the six foot mark that would allow him to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead he sees his opportunity to make his father proud and impress Gretta Lawlor, the girl he yearns for, by signing up with Royal Dublin Fusiliers and going away to war. Dunne (sister to Annie Dunne the subject of Barry's 2002 novel of the same name) is a perfect narrator for this story, young and relatively innocent, his confusion is our confusion, and this conflict is one in which naivety is everywhere. As a reader I found myself wincing just with the concept of signing up 'for the duration', knowing that the war would last so long. Barry handles his first set piece brilliantly, the spectre of a yellow cloud moving toward the trenches and the bedlam unleashed as the poisoned gas takes its deadly toll is genuinely terrifying. As much for us, who know what is coming towards them, as for them who have no idea. Knowledge is no protector as he shows with the second gas attack. Armed with masks this time there is the even more terrifying prospect of remaining in place and allowing the gas to pass over, the efficacy of military hardware as much a problem then as it is now. It is something which Dunne himself never really recovers from, his sorrow at losing Captain Pasley, who remains behind in the trenches even though it means death, changes:
'...something had happened to that sorrow. It had gone rancid in him, he thought; it had boiled down to something he didn't understand. The pith of sorrow was in the upshot a little seed of death.'
Almost worse than what he suffers on the front are the trips he makes back home. The first of these places him right amongst the Easter Rising as it happens and he is traumatised again by witnessing the death of a rebel at close hand. Our young hero begins to feel the stirrings of his self, begins to form opinions, starts to do what he had been exhorted to do by Gretta's father: to 'know his own mind'. And this places him in conflict with his father. This is one of the great themes of the book and the letters that pass between Willie and his father have a great significance, as letters must have done, and still do, in war time. But with the un-mooring of that security he felt at home he finds life on the front harder and harder to deal with.
The conflict between the various factions of Irish politics are seen in microcosm in the army and given a grand event in the boxing match which pits Ulsterman against Southerner, two giants of men who trade blows whilst the assembled men shout from around the hall. The epic fight almost silences the crowd and when one man finally fells the other, in spite of the bragging rights which inevitably go to the victor's side there is a new found respect between the two groups of men. Barry certainly has great skills in creating memorable characters: Christy Moran, the Sergeant-Major with a filthy mouth provides most of the one-liners, his clowning keeping morale high. Father Buckley provides spiritual support as well as an ear to confide fears and doubts. A fellow soldier, Jesse Kirwan, who Willie encounters first in Dublin during the rebel uprising, becomes the focal point of Willie's political maturation.
As the title suggests, music plays an enormously important role, in particular the singing amongst the men and this is his other great achievement in the book. Barry allows the prose to become infused in musical language so that in the theatre of war 'grief was as common as whistle tunes', and it is only the men there fighting (rather than the officers safely away from the battle) that know 'the drear paintings and the atrocious music of the front line'. Amongst the men, music becomes the great leveller, as when their Captain requests that they sing 'Do Your Balls Hang Low'. Willie himself is blessed with a great voice and in a beautifully rendered scene he sings Ave Maria 'for these ruined men, these doomed listeners, these wretched fools of men come out to fight a war without a country to their name'. It is hard to steer a course that avoids sentimentality when dealing with these scenes and it is to Barry's credit that he avoids not just that but also what Jeffery calls 'the flawed understanding of the war, including constant casualties, incessant misery, homoerotic trench relationships and the rest.'
As someone who has read very little literature of The Great War I feel that I have learnt not just something of the grim realities of warfare but, through the sympathetic creation of a character like Willie Dunne, something of that notion of sacrifice which has played such a huge part in its depiction in our culture.