Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Irish Novel: Whither Protest?

“Between my finger and my thumb /
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.”
  Seamus Heaney, Digging

It occurred to me on Thursday night, at the Irish Book Awards, that the process of selecting winners in the various categories was akin to what’s going on with Ireland itself these days. Contrary to my post last Thursday, most of the categories weren’t decided solely by public vote; it was a combination of public vote and the decision of a judging panel. These days, in Ireland, we tend to vote for something - a change in government, say, on the promise that the new government will prove less subservient to the unelected mandarins in Brussels, Frankfurt and New York - and then, once the vote is in, a ‘judging panel’ sits down to decide what’s really good for us. Or, more accurately, what’s good for French and German banks.
  Anyway, Thursday was an interesting day, the Book Awards aside. Thursday was the day we heard that the forthcoming Irish budget, to be announced in early December, had been circulated to the German parliament, in essence so that it could be ratified in Germany before being presented as a fait accompli to the Irish people. Thursday evening, meanwhile, was when the NYPD moved in force against the Occupy Wall Street camped at Zuccotti Park.
  Back at the ranch, or more precisely the Concert Hall in the RDS in Dublin, the best and brightest of the Irish publishing industry had gathered to celebrate the best and brightest in Irish books.
  I couldn’t help wondering what exactly it was we were celebrating.
  In part, we were celebrating the election of Michael D. Higgins as President of Ireland the previous week, President Higgins being a very well respected poet as well as a politician of impeccable credentials (impeccable, of course, if you’re of a left-leaning bent yourself, which I tend to be). His election is being heralded as something of a sea-change in Ireland: that having a man of culture and letters, and a man with a long-cherished aisling (dream, or vision) of how Ireland should be, is A Very Good Thing.
  We were also celebrating the lifetime achievements of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, a friend and peer of Michael D. Higgins, and a man whose writing career was born as the Troubles kicked off in Northern Ireland. Is it stretching the point to describe Seamus Heaney as a poet of protest? It’s at least fair to say, I think, that his early poetry reflected the turbulent world in which he grew up, never more so than in 1975’s bleak vision of politico-religious schizophrenia, ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’.
  As for the rest of it, well, there were a number of well-meaning speeches on the subject of the quality of Irish writing, and how writers, publishers and book-sellers alike are all struggling to keep their heads above water in these turbulent economic times. All of which is very true, of course, but the question begs to be asked: to what end are writers, particularly, struggling to stay afloat?
  In other words, what are we saying? Are we saying anything, or nothing?
  Last Thursday, as I say, was a particularly interesting day, but the economic downturn has been making its effects known in Ireland for at least four years now. Those effects are pretty much the same here as everywhere else: those at the lower end of the economic scale are being brutalised at the expense of those who can afford to insulate themselves, and further capitalise on misery.
  Now, I do appreciate that a novel takes some time to write, but surely four years should be enough time for authors to have developed some kind of coherent philosophy in opposition to the brutalisation of Irish society.
  The winner of the Crime Fiction award, Alan Glynn’s BLOODLAND, being a ‘paranoid thriller’ about what happens when supposedly exclusive worlds of business, politics and crime converge, can be read in part as a protest against the current global crisis, and the effect it has on the ordinary person in the street.
  Otherwise, there was a marked absence of protest, anger, rage.
  Is it not the duty of the novelist to reflect the world he or she inhabits? Is it perhaps true that, in a time of crisis, readers are more inclined to seek out escapism? Is it the case that protest is only acceptable long after the event, as a historical footnote? Are protest, anger and rage simply unmarketable in the current climate? Should that even matter?
  Publishing in Ireland is facing the same range of issues that face publishing all over the world, and there are no simple solutions. And it’s perfectly understandable, I think, that people will always be far more concerned about losing their jobs, their income, their means of supporting their families, than they are about any kind of philosophy of protest.
  By the same token, I think there’s a fairly straightforward economic chain of cause-and-effect between publishing people - writers, publishers, book-sellers - losing their jobs, and the public not being able to afford to buy books in the quantities it once did, largely because of the mismanagement of the economy by a gilded elite of bankers, regulators and politicians that would be laughable were it not costing lives.
  Where’s the anger about that? Where’s the protest?
  I thoroughly enjoyed my night out at the Irish Book Awards on Thursday night, mainly because I got to meet so many excellent people, writers, publishers and book-sellers. But given the black tie context, and the glasses of champagne, and the faintly hysterical air of self-congratulation, it was hard not to think of the upper deck of the Titanic, and the string quartet playing diligently on.
  Perhaps that was entirely appropriate: as a whole, the Irish response to the brutalisation of our country, of the erosion of our economic sovereignty and national dignity, to the stories of children reduced to eating the cardboard box of Cornflakes, has been supine. ‘Ireland is not Greece,’ our politicians tell their overlords in Frankfurt and Berlin, although there really should be no need, given that the ordinary Greeks have at least made their fury known, at home and abroad, through mass protest, strikes and a violent rejection of shouldering a debt that was largely created by the gamblers, spoofers and charlatans who like to refer to themselves, without irony, as ‘Masters of the Universe’.
  And perhaps said spoofers are right to call themselves that. After all, in the last week or ten days, the markets have essentially been responsible for the replacement of democracy with technocracy in Greece and Italy; and, had Enda Kenny been so bold as to reject the notion that a foreign parliament and its funding machine should have the right to inspect Ireland’s economic blueprint before the Irish people had a chance to do so, very possibly Ireland too.
  In that context, I suppose, the Irish Book Awards last Thursday night were a microcosm of Ireland itself. The establishment busily celebrating its democratically elected winners, and yet casting anxious glances towards the volatile markets, unsure of which way the wind will blow. Whatever you say, say nothing.
  I say, fuck that for a game of soldiers.
  I say, we’ll be celebrating Jim Larkin’s lock-out in two years time.
  I say, it’s only five years to the centenary of the 1916 Rising.
  I say that with power comes responsibility, that Irish writers have the power, and the responsibility, to protest. To say what needs to be said.
  “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.”
  If you haven’t already gone blind from laughing at my naivety, I’ll be so bold as to offer an excerpt from ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, from pg 170, on the subject of democracy and capitalism, and the possible consequences when the latter is allowed to erode the essential human rights of the former. To wit:
The theory of democracy holds that the most wretched is rightfully equal in status to the most powerful.
  This is history.
  This is bunk.
  Democracy is political theory reaching back 5,000 years to the pyramids for inspiration, an apex dependent on a broad foundation for its very existence. It is the few bearing down on the millions, and the millions feeling proud that they have provided an unparalleled view of the universe for the few. Democracy is a blizzard of options so thick it obscures the fact that there is no choice.
  The cradles of democracy, London and Philadelphia, deployed genocide as a means of social engineering, in Australia and North America respectively, a full two hundred years before Hitler and Stalin began their pissing contest in Poland.
  It is no coincidence that democracy evolved in tandem with the industrial revolution. Democracy and capitalism are symbiotic parasites. Democracy’s truth is not one man, one vote; it is one man, one dollar. Democracy’s truth is the abrogation of the individual’s rights in favour of collective procrastination, while those running the show exercise censorious control on behalf of the nervous disposition of the collective will.
  Democracy’s truth is Frankie suspended on half pay pending an inquiry.
  Democracy has replaced religion as the opiate du jour. Democracy is the ostrich with its head in the sand and its ass in the air, begging to be taken in traditional pirate fashion. It is the subjugation of the people, by the people, for the people. It is the inalienable right to purchase your personalised interpretation of liberalised slavery. It is the right to sell your soul to the highest bidder. It is the right to pay for the privilege of being alive.
  In Ireland, for historical reasons, democracy is truth is one man, one mortgage. It is also one woman, one mortgage. Most often, given the size of the mortgage, it is one woman and man, one mortgage.
  For some reason most dictators fail to realise that the trick to democracy is to have the slaves buy and sell themselves. The trick is to incentivise slaves to invest in their slavery, to pay for their own prisons, shackle themselves to brick and mortar.
  The trick to democracy is in ensuring the slaves’ capacity for self-regulation is not taken for granted. The trick is to maintain the healthy tension between democracy and capitalism, so that one does not undermine or overshadow the other. The trick is to ensure the slaves’ investment retains the illusion of value. Failure to do so will result in the slaves questioning the worth of their dollar and / or vote. The answer to this question is delivered in blood.
  Masters of the Universe, do not say you weren’t warned.
  Frankie, the half-pay sop notwithstanding, is man paralysed by the conflicting impulses of rage and terror as he contemplates a future boiled down to an uncertain tomorrow. Charged with adrenaline, at the very limit of his chain, he is braced for fight or flight. But this unnatural condition cannot hold. Rage and terror will cancel one another out, leaving a vacuum that nature abhors and an empty vessel full of noise.
  What sound will emerge? What fury?
  Frankie, my friend, my pawn, my hero: now is the time to signify. Now is the time to reset the dial. Now is the time for absolute zero, to raze the pyramids to the sand and start all over again.
  My line for today comes courtesy of Miguel de Unamuno: A man does not die of love or his liver or even of old age; he dies of being a man.


Richard L. Pangburn said...

As much as I love the novel (and I love a good rant almost anywhere, almost anytime), I would advise you to edit a few words of that in important places.

I'd have to say that Democracy is NOT the problem. Oligarchy is the problem, rule by the rich.

See Wikipedia here:

The United States was fairly democratic during the 1970s, when there was a balance between corporate and union power for nearly a decade. The rich then went about buying all politicians up both left and right and destroying the power of unions.

Mission accomplished.

Robert Michels believed that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy. He called this the "iron law of oligarchy."

But still I believe in a constitutional democracy--Churchill was wrong about many things, but he was right when he said that all forms of government were bad, and democracy simply the best of a bad lot.

What has been changed can be changed back, the pendulem can be swung back the other way.

Journalists can pave the way, as soon as we can find enough of them with the courage and the know-how to do it. I don't look for things to change a great deal in my lifetime.

But maybe things will get better.

John McFetridge said...

Excellent post.

Some of it may come down to this:

"Is it not the duty of the novelist to reflect the world he or she inhabits?"

Maybe they are.

Declan Burke said...

Thanks for the feedback, Richard. As for editing a few words - do you mean the excerpt should be edited? If that's the case, then I'm not by any means standing over the excerpt as any kind of political manifesto, especially as it comes from Karlsson. The point I was trying to make is that, for good or ill, the novel connects with its culture and society, and the current condition of that society, and the anger and desperation that underpins it.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

John -

"Maybe they are."

You may well be more right than I'm happy to admit.

Cheers, Dec

adrian mckinty said...


I havent read Bloodland but I can confidently say that AZC IS a novel that tackles the real world, our world with unflinching courage and clear sightedness.

Kafka said that good art should hurt us wound us make us sit up and think. Too much of what we see around us dulls us into a stupor of complacency.

adrian mckinty said...


But democracy in Ireland may only be the illusion of choice. Without going all Marcusian on you, in Northern Ireland there is no true left - right political axis and in the South we're still voting in Pro Treaty and Anti Treaty parties, ninety years after the Treaty was signed! A choice between white, cream and off white is no choice at all.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Re: Edit

I said that wrong. Should have edited my comment better.

Re: politics

As Norman Solomon says, "Class warfare is roundly condemned by many a politician who actually supports it as long as it is being waged from the top down."

For the last Friday's Forgotten Book on my blog, I posted about Stephen Greenleaf, an ex-lawyer turned novelist, whose intelligent leftist protagonist is one of my all-time favorites.

Not finding commercial success after several critically acclaimed novels, Greenleaf gave up writing and went back to being a lawyer. Perhaps his lack of commercial appeal was in part due to the leftist leanings of his books. This was during the bubble 1990s.

Taking a stand attracted loyal readers but a generic political tone might have made him successful. I'd say he did the right thing, but if he loathes other lawyers like his protagonist always did, he is back to making a living by swimming with the sharks.

seana said...

I'm sorry to hear that about Greenleaf, Richard, because I read a couple of his books and really enjoyed them, without even noticing a political stance.

T.S. O'Rourke said...

I'll celebrate Big Jim with you in 2013 Dec ;-)

Buy that man a pint!

LP OBryan said...


You are 100% correct that many writers avoid the present in search of literary frolics in the land of their youth.

If you get a chance to read The Istanbul Puzzle you will see that it starts with a riot, includes a conspiracy to take us further down by those of a fascist tendency and addresses issues of Islam and the blame game in a European context. I am still surprise it's getting published!

The game is afoot all over Europe, and in the world too, and I hope to focus on some underlying issues in the rest of the series.