Books: Roddy the star gets himself dirty

A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle Cape pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Although it at first looks like a strangely bland title, as the book progresses, the concept of A Star Called Henry slowly acquires complex layers of meaning. It refers initially to the narrator's elder brother, who dies in infancy. According to Dublin mythology of the time, each star in the sky corresponds to a dead child. When our hero, also called Henry, is born it seems both ominous and morbid that he is named after a dead sibling.

Henry Smart's father, an enforcer and occasional murderer for Dublin's criminal gangs, one day disappears. Along with his brother, the nine- year-old Henry is soon separated from what is left of his family. His gruelling life on the streets of a poverty-stricken Dublin, as a child with an even younger brother to look after, is unflinchingly and movingly described by Doyle. The first section of the novel closes with the death, of tuberculosis, of Henry's brother and only companion. Henry's life, at this stage, couldn't be less stellar.

Following a jump cut at the opening of section two, we rejoin Henry several years later as a hero of the failed Easter Rising in 1916, where he becomes one of the few survivors of the famous siege of Dublin's central post office. The remainder of the book follows Henry's exploits as a freedom fighter against the British, riding a bike around the country, training anti-Imperial hit squads, while riding a fair proportion of rural Ireland's female population into the bargain. At this stage of the novel, the title seems pretty straightforward. Henry Smart is, indeed, a star of the revolutionary movement. Or at least, so he thinks.

The closing chapters of the book, with the British defeated, see Henry's sudden disillusionment with the locally bred but equally amoral leaders who have now risen to power in the new Irish Republic. With his realisation that what he has been fighting for is little better than what he has fought against, Henry reassesses what he has done. Through clever parallels, we are gradually drawn through Henry's recognition that he is no better than his father. Their murders were little different. In a climactically cynical ending, the heroism and myth-making of the novel are viciously undercut. The title, by the end of the book, rings resonantly hollow.

Henry Smart, all of a sudden, despises his own heroics. Moreover, just as he begins to question his role in the struggle against the British, his allies turn on him. In victory, Henry is no longer a useful "star" of the cause. Ironically, the powers in the new Irish Republic decide that they can best strive for respectability by killing off their own killers, who now simply seem like embarrassing thugs. The final chapter in the violence is a cleansing through yet more violence.

Henry is expelled from the winning side. Our "star" becomes an invisible foot soldier of the war. An "eejit" in other people's power games. Having come close to a pivotal role in history, all of a sudden, both morally and materially, he is a zero.

This makes for an extraordinary denouement - a genuine pulling of the rug from under your feet. Just as you are preparing to criticise the book for romanticising of violence, just when you are beginning to wonder about the morality of a novel that so passionately evokes the thrill of armed revolutionary struggle, Doyle executes a stomach-churning reversal, and you realise that you have been reading a profoundly serious examination of the morals of political murder. In the space of a few pages, the IRA manifesto in your hands turns into a book that challenges and questions the most sacred myths behind the birth of the Irish Republic.

The sewers of Dublin play a central role in the novel, both literally (as an escape route) and figuratively (as a counterpoint to the astronomical allusion of the title). When you least expect it, in the denouement, Doyle takes his stars and puts them into the sewer, at the same time planting a few sewer rats in the sky.

Roddy Doyle, widely regarded as one of the most likeable men in modern literature, has set about making enemies. The star called Roddy has got himself dirty, and if voices aren't raised against him for this book, one can only suspect that it isn't being read carefully enough.

Every anti-Imperial struggle has its heroes, and while Doyle doesn't particularly gun for the de Valeras and Michael Collinses, the movement as a whole is made to seem distinctly morally tarnished. Doyle does for revolutionary war what so many writers before him have done for imperialist war. He creates heroes, then undercuts the whole notion of heroism through violence. With regard to the Anglo-Irish struggle, this is a radical stance. As such, A Star Called Henry is a brave and fascinating book - both intellectually and morally stimulating. It's also full of great sex.