A remarkable photograph appeared in the newspapers some years ago when the Swedish superstore Ikea opened its vast branch in Belfast. Pictured at the launch, side-by-side on a sofa, like buddies imitating members of The Royle Family for a giggle, were Northern Ireland’s First Minister, the Reverend Ian Paisley, and the Deputy First Minister, former IRA leader Martin McGuinness. ‘Home is the most important place in the world,’ announced the slogan behind them. You almost expected them to chime, ‘Home, my arse!’
The Irish peace process has produced daring and unlikely partnerships but David Park’s edgy and compelling new novel looks behind its uneasily constructed images. Set in an imagined future in which a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation has been established to offer possibilities of ‘communal healing and closure’, it destabilizes such terminologies and approaches. Has the language of psychotherapy anything to offer when the dysfunction has been entrenched so widely? The truth, as Wilde remarked, is rarely pure and never simple. It cuts in all directions, raising ghosts at every turn, perhaps undermining the very reconciliation it seeks to cultivate. It might set free. But it hurts.
Francis Gilroy, senior Provo turned hardworking minister in the power-sharing executive – Park has insisted all his characters are fictional -- is reminder that some of Northern Ireland’s politicos, in former incarnations, wielded Kalashnikovs rather than manifestoes. Gilroy’s name (perhaps the subject of an authorial irony, for in its original Gaelic form it means ‘servant of the king’) is legendary among the Republican community he represents in the assembly. A hard man, long accustomed to nights on the run, his days are now spent in frequently gruelling engagement with the endless minutiae of governance. There are bills to be drafted, constituents to be appeased, delegations to be convinced, portraits to be sat for, comparisons with the ANC and the Sandinistas to be debated, lost dogs to be located for the voters. And there is ongoing war of glances with his inscrutable Civil Servant, Crockett, whose silences communicate volumes.
Memories of a horrific killing loom from Gilroy’s past. These days he is Minister for Culture and Children, attempting, by nightly immersions in literature, to read a way into his brief. James Joyce he finds inaccessible, Philip Larkin evocative and quotable, and perhaps nowhere in the world is the bite-size quote of poetry such a feature of public discourse as it is in post-Blair Ireland . Regular doses of Heaney are part of the roughage of self-improvement, but Yeats brings only ministerial indigestion. A pity Gilroy didn’t get to that poet’s ‘Among School Children’, in which an uneasy parliamentarian visits a classroom in an earlier traumatized Ireland, and is discomfited when ‘the children’s eyes/In momentary wonder stare upon/A sixty-year-old smiling public man.’ It’s a text that could reveal much to the Gilroys of the world but perhaps Park is correct to assume they wouldn’t notice it.
Henry Stanfield, the Truth Commissioner, the most interesting and complex character in the novel, is another kind of public man. Heading up the Commission is a wearying task, unalleviated by gloomy nights in a Belfast hotel, sometimes with a prostitute onto whom he projects his fantasies of belonging, although mostly she is ‘a ghost in his bed’. A fractured relationship with his daughter, who resents his treatment of her dead mother, offers versions of the questions he spends his days trying to answer. Can the dead be apologised to? Who is to forgive? Aren’t justice and reconciliation incompatible?
With immense narrative skill and structural deftness, Park maps the lonely road of his truth-finder through a windstorm of evasions. Driven to discover the fate of an executed boy, Connor Walshe, he senses hidden agendas, wheels within wheels, and is blackmailed by two operatives of British intelligence in a chilling scene slightly diminished by its employment of stereotypes. What was done to the terrified fifteen-year-old is the novel’s central event, so wrenchingly written that it is difficult to read and would be harder to believe did we not know that such terrors happened, and that worse was suffered, also, by so many.
In this world of ducked responsibilities and allegiances turned to hatreds, Stanfield gropes for a meaning. But collusions and complicities come in many guises; official files disappear or are altered to protect the guilty. There are stunning scenes involving a retired RUC detective, James Fenton, and others featuring Michael Madden, a former IRA member now living under an alias in America, whose escape from the past is thwarted at the very instant it appears about to finalise itself. Meanwhile, the bodies of the disappeared remain unreturned, while some of those who try to legislate a way out of the morass have the memory of blood on their hands. And nobody, in this story of men bonded by loyalty, trusts anyone. In a broken society, the straight word is suspect, the plain deal a figment, the handshake a weapon. Euphemism and prevarication are co-rulers of the wreckage, and we’re far from the flashbulbs of Ikea.
It is a brave writer indeed who ventures into such territory. The three most terrible decades in the 20th Century history of these islands have been called ‘The Troubles’, a war, a conflict, a struggle, a criminal gang-fest, a sectarian clash, and the argument over designation will long be continued in a place where language’s nuances are much scrutinized. Readers with clear-cut analyses will filter Park’s novel through the prism of their own definitions. Others will see it a remarkable tour de force, which tries to keep faith with redemptive solidarities while it smoulders with quiet rage against injustice and bigotry from wherever source they come. But finally it is not a novel about politics at all. Its preoccupation is the private, the battleground of the self, and it approaches the mysterious with a kind of unsparing simplicity that yields moments of heart-shivering beauty. Atonement, if achievable, is hard won indeed and few are exculpated at the close.
Fenton, Madden, Stanfield and Gilroy have lived in the masks they chose to put on. The time has come finally to face their choices uncovered, but the guises have adhered so that to remove them and begin again is to amputate part of the self. Park takes these four destroyed men who have come to seem strange even to themselves, and somehow, in describing them, while not fixing their brokenness, offers glimpses of what might have been, and of what still might be, too. A terrible beauty, but a powerful one for that, this is a magnificent and important book.