Thursday, 9 April 2009

'out in the unknowable sea'

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty
by Sebastian Barry

Towards the end of Barry's 'flawed' but prize-winning novel The Secret Scripture there is a brief encounter for Roseanne McNulty with her brother-in-law Eneas. Until they meet both have been nothing but stories to each other, both of them estranged and exiled, and there is a tender comfort that they offer each other in this passage which is startling for its brevity. Eneas delivers a speech about a bombing raid on Belfast, an event which has left him 'veritably singed' in appearance, and he mentions a bible passage which forms the epigraph of the novel which carries his name.

'And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire'
Revelation, ch. 20: v. 15
From the very first sentence Barry casts Eneas as but a small part of a country's history, a history he has been covering form differing perspectives through all of his writing.
In the middle of the lonesome town, at the back of John Street, in the third house from the end, there is a little room. For this small bracket in the long paragraph of the street's history, it belongs to Eneas McNulty. All about him the century has just begun, a century which he will endure, but none of which will belong to him.
Eneas is the first born son of Tom McNulty,a simple boy who finds his world turned on its head when his siblings arrive, all of them cleverer than him. His childhood seems brief, with small flashes of joy before he signs up to join the merchant navy with other men from Sligo in order to help the war effort. This first venture will have huge consequences for his life as he discovers on his return.
He can't find a niche in the world of Sligo to slot himself back into - not just a niche for living in, but a niche of time itself. The sea has put a different clock into him.
This sense of unease is compounded when he is blanked by his boyhood friend Jonno Lynch. The change in the political climate whilst he has been away means his work for the British navy has placed him firmly on the other side to his former companion. This divide opens even further when, after a year with no work, he joins the other 'fools and flotsam' in the Royal Irish Constabulary. As the violence and killings increase between the rebels and the 'tans' Eneas is offered a single opportunity to redeem himself in Lynch's and the rebel's eyes. When he cannot do what they ask of him it is only a matter of time before he has to flee, leaving behind his new found love, beginning a life in exile, 'cast out from his world'.

There are plenty of writers who plough the same furrow intellectually with their various plots and characters, who end up writing essentially the same thing again and again however different the set-up may be. Barry does the opposite with his novels. The period covered is roughly the same and the same cast list of characters inhabits each book, but each time he is able to focus on a specific facet left exposed by this turbulent period of history, and each time it feels as though he is voicing for the first time the forgotten history of a real man or woman, a person who could stand for any number of the Irish people but who always stands out as an individual because of his skill in creating character.

The odyssey that Eneas endures seems almost like an adventure until those moments when he takes stock and you realise that a man in exile can never have those comforts of rest, home and family that the rest of us take for granted. The landings at Normandy are depicted in all the raw numbness made so clear by Capa or Spielberg and when he is effectively taken hostage by a French farmer after the war and forced to work his land he realises his state.
Firstly he stood amid the dead by the edge of the sea and secondly now he works the rows of vines not so much as a living man but a vanished man. Of course he understands this is his natural condition.
He makes attempts at return, confronting the true meaning of nostalgia, 'he remembers Mr Jackson the master explaining in his batlike voice years ago that nostalgia means something hard and tricky in the Greek, not a pleasing feeling at all, but the sickness of returning home.', and each time the visits are brief as it isn't long before the sentence of death passed on him all those years ago rears its head again and makes plain that there are long memories and no forgiveness.

In Eneas' telling of his meeting with Roseanne there are of course differences which sent me back to the later book to check. The reliability of memory is questioned as it should be, not just in people who are clearly damaged by their experiences (As Eneas notes, 'Looks like he has a choice of memories for the same times here and there. Not so good.'), but surely by all of us. However, as unreliable as it may be it is often clear that in the 20th century in Ireland memory is one thing that people hold dear, as important above all.

This book fails to quite reach the character defining heights of The Secret Scripture, or the emotional power of A Long Long Way and yet the standard of writing is so high throughout, the empathy with which he writes so warm and full of love that you cannot help but be affected by the overwhelming sadness that these books are soaked in. By finding these voices and articulating so much through them Barry is slowly creating a body of work which will stand alongside, or rather very much as a part of the real oral history of Ireland.


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