Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, the 2005 debut collection of short stories from Philip O’Ceallaigh, garnered deservedly strong reviews and a handful of prizes. Its follow-up, The Pleasant Light of Day, will extend and deepen his already considerable reputation as an artist of extraordinary gifts. He is assiduous with words, a writer of craft and vision, and refreshingly so sparing with similes and self-announcing images that to read him is to be reminded of the power of plain prose to break into territories of the imagination. When he does use a metaphor, it bursts off the page. (‘The hoofed beast of jealous panic ran through him.’) Of the dozen stories here, perhaps ten are so perfectly achieved and exhilaratingly confident that you feel O’Ceallaigh is developing a form all his own.
There’s a focus on telling it as it is, not on saying what it’s like. In Uprooted, a story unusual for being located in his native Ireland, ‘Gulls quiver on the wind, swoop, rise again, wheeling in the updraught.’ The wind is ‘picking up the crashing swell at the cliffs of Inis Meáin, propelling it halfway across that island as salt rain.’ In Walking Away, a strange and compelling piece set shortly after a funeral, the narrator resists facile or inherited assumptions of the meaningful. ‘What foolishness, to speak of beyond, when we hardly know what we have here, on this earth, right before our eyes.’ What can be seen is always important in these vivid, measured stories. This is an author who looks at things carefully, annihilates the clichés. John McGahern wrote that any artist needs first a way of seeing. Philip O’Ceallaigh has one
This is a world where sexuality is tough, a contested ground, and the comings and goings of his hungry-hearted characters rarely yield a sense of communion. And in My Secret War he unfolds a nightmarish vision of suburban American life. ‘In the evenings, after the kids are in bed, me and Martha might drink a bottle of beer on the porch, listening to the crickets. A flag flies over our tranquil lawn, for our brave men and women in the service….Evil lies in every human heart, awaiting the faltering of our vigilance. There is no need to say much to Martha because she knows already.’ A resident of Bucharest, he conjures east-European cities with shimmering precision; these metropolises of trams and urban insularities and recently vacated pedestals. But the stories that have rural settings are brilliantly achieved too. In High Country, a hauntingly beautiful piece, a man hikes alone into the countryside beyond a provincial town, the resulting spell of self-confrontation unfolded with such exactitude and delicacy that you feel you’ve walked the same rainstorm. Revelations are few and epiphanies fewer. The trekker in the story is not quite sure of destinations but tells himself ‘the time patiently taken was what you offered up, trusting that the moment would come.’ It’s a thought that often arises on the journey through this exquisite collection, for this is work that invites slow re-reading, not in order to understand it, but so as to glimpse again the consolation of the world being described.
The standard is extremely high, which is one of the reasons why The Alchemist, an only intermittently funny satire of the work of the Brazilian inspirational writer Paulo Coelho, might have been better omitted. Fish in a barrel sometimes need to be shot, but the 32-page death they receive from O’Ceallaigh comes to feel dismayingly drawn-out. There is also a slightly cluttering inter-textuality, tropes from one story materialising in another. (O’Ceallaigh’s first book is referenced in the opening story, with a title so thinly disguised as to demand immediate recognition.) When the playfulness works, as it sometimes does, the result is an attractive complicating of the textures of the stories, a sense that they are linked like the verses of a song or the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram. This is a writer who is pushing hard at the boundaries of the form. If it doesn’t always come off, you admire his courage and purpose, his avowal that there are still things undone that words might do, in a genre that might yet come to be important for our times. In Another Country, the longest story, and thematically a central one, is a masterpiece that earns every line of its 53 pages. The prose is graceful and poised yet supercharged with the edginess that makes the events it describes unforgettable.
All in all, this is a profoundly impressive and haunting suite of stories, remarkable for being only the second collection from an author who is already touched by greatness. In one of them, a character kneels on a riverbank, ‘where the water was deeper than in other places and he could see the clean stones on the riverbed.’ It’s what O’Ceallaigh’s writing achieves, a clarification, a revealing, a pointing to realities so fundamental and unchanging that most of the time they go unnoticed. He is a scintillating talent and this is work of immense strength, but also of light, an elusive hopefulness.