Books: Exile without cunning

I COULD READ THE SKY by Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke, Harvill pounds 14.99
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This book has a high opinion of itself. The first sign of that is its elegant design. The text would run to far less than 160 pages, were it not set in generous amounts of creamy-white space and punctuated by photographs. The message intended by this high-art approach must be that what few words we do find on the page are precious. The black- and-white images seem sometimes to have nothing to do with it at all. But they do look important.

I Could Read The Sky is a collaboration between the author Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke, a photographer who is known for his searching portraits. The words are those of an elderly Irishman, in exile in London at the end of his life. They are fictional, but informed by O'Grady's interviewing of emigrants. The pictures were taken in Eire and Britain over the last 10 years.

Since Ireland is fashionable at the moment, there are hundreds of books offering the literary equivalent of a Paddy O'Craic theme pub, with fake road signs and bad stout. I Could Read The Sky describes the same rural communities, with their stone cottages and geese in the yard, but goes further, attempting to tell the stories of those whose flight from poverty took them to new lives just as hard, on road gangs or working in the fields of England.

The intention is clearly to fashion Art. So that we understand the grand scale of this ambition, the preface is by John Berger, whose words are so pretentious that they're funny. This is, he says, a book that has been made in the dark, as photographers are made in a darkroom, and it is "to be looked at with the eyes shut, not the first time of course, but at all other times when you turn its pages". Exactly how this should be done is not made clear. One way might be to have it read to you, since the text is both minimal and musical, in a way that echoes Beckett.

There is great timing here, says Berger, and he is right. The style is understated, evocative, and nimble - moving quickly and surprisingly from the commonplace to the funny, or the uncommonly sad. Waking from dreams of his youth in Labasheeda, the old man finds himself back in a room in Kentish Town, where the weak grey light lacks the "cold steely look of the winter sea". He sees a black box with an accordion, a frayed shirt, some tablets, a bottle of Guinness ... and "a wardrobe made by people I've never met". In that passing phrase, we see precisely how far this man has come in a lifetime - from a village where everyone knew each other's business to the sleepless, dislocated city. O'Grady moves on quickly, without fuss, but the phrase lingers in the mind.

The bottle of Guinness in that list was, perhaps, inevitable. One might suspect this book of plastic Paddyism at times, with its whiskey and stout, wild reels and boxing booths, and old women with rosaries. Are there really so many itinerant labourers who have the souls of poets? Perhaps we can believe that, since hunger and poverty did not discriminate between the sensitive and the dim when they drove the Irish eastwards.

When PJ, a member of a road gang, hears of a colleague's death while sleeping rough, he delivers a drink-fuelled verdict on his nation's exiles. "We are the immortals," he says. "We have one name and we have one body. We are always in our prime and we are always fit for work. We dig the tunnels, lay the rails and build the roads and buildings. Whenever the stiffness and pain come in and the work gets harder, as it did for Roscoe, we change again into our younger selves. On and on we go. We are like the bottle that never empties. We are immortal."

PJ's grand words are undercut by his work mates. The old man's dreams of his village do not shy from brutal details like the cutting of a pig's throat. Sentimentality also finds its counter in the black-and-white photographs. A woman in bulky overcoat and trainers stands alone in the drizzle, with a pram on a winding road, and looks at the camera. Her image suggests that reality can be grim in County Kerry, or anywhere else that fires the longing of its exiles.

Two pages later, the text describes Baby, a simple-minded woman pushing an empty pram on the road near her village. Was that a photograph of her? Is the story true? This is how the photographs work: informing the text, asking questions of it, going off at tangents. A pale young woman with black hair is described sitting in a railway carriage, and on accompanying pages we see five women: one middle-aged, three young, and startlingly beautiful, one very old and wizened. They imply that the girl on the train has a life beyond the story.

Towards the end, there is an image of a simply-furnished room in which a painting of Jesus looks down on an unmade bed. It adds context to the finest passage of writing in the book, an inspired section that enables you to forgive and forget any previous flirtation with cliche and the maudlin. O'Grady offers us a commonplace scene - the old man meeting his love as she comes home from Mass - then charges it with passion, before a cruel twist. For the skill of its ending, and for the intriguing interplay between text and image, this book has a right to think well of itself.