Literature from Northern Ireland: A dandy strut disturbed by sudden pistol shots: George Watson considers the plight of writers inspired by troubles

OVERHEARD, 20 years ago, Scottish novelist to Irish poet: 'You lucky bastard. You've got a war, and general mayhem, and the media over your shoulder; all I've got to write about is adultery in the East Neuk of Fife]'

The advantages of the Big Subject have, however, long been outweighed for most Irish writers by the problems. First, familiarity. Every adult in these islands, not actually brain-dead, could direct right now a TV documentary on Northern Ireland. As a character in Glenn Patterson's Fat Lad (1992) puts it: 'Their houses, their schools, their shops, their parents' jobs, or lack of them, their songs, their jokes, their games, their wall paintings (above all their bloody wall paintings]), you name it, someone somewhere was sure to have covered it.' Second, repetitiveness: the news bulletins in Northern Ireland resemble a sanguinary Moebius Strip, and it is difficult for the writers - especially of 'realistic' literature - to avoid sharing in that horrible circularity, in which the imagination is eventually stunned, not stimulated.

Some writers have not avoided the snare of self-importance, presenting one ten-thousandth of the earth's surface as the centre of the significant universe. Paul Muldoon has put his finger on another danger: 'The trouble with this place is that if you don't engage in it, you're an ostrich (whatever 'engage in it' means). If you do engage in it, you're using the situation . . . you're on the make almost, cashing in.'

Muldoon's honest scruple does not worry the legion of thriller writers who have quite happily cashed in on the pretence of 'illuminating' the Northern Irish problem: such writers will tell you all you want to know about AK47s and military bureaucracy, and will drop Belfast street names like authenticating confetti, but will tell you nothing about Northern Ireland - except that the girls (Nuala or Nora) are flame-haired temptresses with dominant fathers and a soft spot for British Army uniforms, and that the (IRA) men have cold hearts, lantern jaws, black hair, bad language, dominant fathers, and stubble (Conor or Declan). One can't help but feel sympathetic to Derek Mahon's 'Last of the Fire Kings', who wants to turn his back on the whole tedious mess, to be 'through with history' and to perfect his 'cold dream / Of a place out of time / A palace of porcelain / Where the frugivorous / Inheritors recline / In their rich fabrics / Far from the sea.'

However, Mahon himself, along with an impressive number of other poets (the Blackstaff Press has recently published a 346-page anthology of poems on the Troubles), has left his palace of porcelain for the world of 'sirens, bin-lids,/ and bricked-up windows'. John Montague, John Hewitt, Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, James Simmons, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Ciaran Carson (some of the poets); Frank McGuiness, Stewart Parker, Brian Friel, Anne Devlin (some of the dramatists); Ben Kiely, Brian Moore, Bernard MacLaverty, Robert McLiam Wilson, Glenn Patterson (some of the novelists), have all done the same. Did they do right to 'engage in the situation'?

Stendhal remarked: 'Politics in a work of art is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert.' That is: the writer should stay clear of this world of bombs and bullets, should stay out of the wood of error where art may slide all too easily into polemics and propaganda. 'Poetry and politics, like church and state, should be separated. And for the same reason: mysteries distort the rational processes which ideally prevail in social relations; while ideologies confiscate the poet's special passport to terra incognita.' Thus, firmly, the critic Edna Longley. (I like that 'ideally'.) The danger that the man on the Falls Road omnibus will be swayed by literary propaganda seems to me slight (though I would not be sure about the man on Fifth Avenue, NYC); the danger that the reader's brain cells may be numbed rigid by well-meant didacticism is more real.

A case in point is Brian Moore's embarrassing Lies of Silence, where characters from Lurgan laboriously explain 'the situation' to characters from Belfast, and condemn terrorism, and sing the praises of ordinary decent people. To this extent, Longley has a point, as she has when she attempts to counter writerly inflation and self-importance by citing Edward Thomas, killed long ago in a bigger war: 'Anything, however small, may make a poem; nothing, however great, is certain to.'

Yet, unfortunately, there is more to living in Northern Ireland than what Muldoon calls 'stars and horses, pigs and trees'. The writer has the difficult duty of sketching for us 'Baedekers of the nightmare ground', in Michael Langley's haunting phrase. This is less a topographical than a moral compulsion; despite the dangers to which Edna Longley draws attention, writers surely cannot ignore the problem. Seamus Deane put the point many years ago in words that have not lost their force: 'There is nothing admirable about the rabid, vatic seer whose wisdom is full of prognostication and climaxes in proverbs. But equally, a certain Osric-like elegance, a dandy strut among the minor passions of one's mind in the midst of a terrible public tragedy is not entirely admirable or enduring either.' Seamus Heaney shares, reluctantly, Deane's sense that the writer should bear witness; reluctantly, because Heaney's honourable scrupulousness balks at the process by which the bearer of witness becomes, willy-nilly, spokesman for the tribe.

A fine sequence of poems, 'Exposure', 'Oysters', and 'Sandstone Keepsake', explores the dilemma with lyric grace as well as moral gravitas. What has 'lyric grace' to do with the representation of a society where life has been described (by Muldoon) as 'nasty, British and short'? Here's another problem: has the writer any business fiddling her or his melodies while Rome (if Dr Paisley will allow the reference) burns?

A cultural war less bloody than that on the streets, but pretty intense, rages in the (academic) pages. These days, which may surprise readers outside Ireland, Heaney is politically incorrect: his poetry seems to suggest the reality of tradition, origins, roots and identity. These are very bad words: lots of Irish critics feel the need for a pluralist, non-essentialist, non-originary (sic) definition of Irishness, in which the exemplary writers would all - in different ways - espouse pluralism and fluidity, and deny what Edward Said (our new literary St Patrick) calls 'the metaphysics of Irishness.' This stance certainly exposes the limitations of the monolithic visions of hardline Republicanism or Unionism. The snag is that the pluralist ethos has itself hardened into an orthodoxy, buttressed not only by laudable reactions to monocular bigotry but by the less convincing Los Angelised critbabble of intellectual fashion.

Here is David Lloyd, an Irishman currently teaching at UCLA, Berkeley, on Heaney: 'Metaphorical foreclosure of issues, by which the proposed matter of the poem acts simultaneously as the metaphor justifying the mode of its treatment, has been a constant feature of Heaney's writing since such early poems as 'Digging', perfectly sustaining its drive towards cultural territorialization and the suturing of identity, because the concepts of culture and individuation thus appear as the formal repetition at the primary ground to which they are thereby returned. The racial and psychological archetype, like the rarified human nature of bourgeois ideology from which it stems, subserves the circularity'. I'd rather be reading Heaney.

So it's not as easy as the Scottish novelist thought. The only good thing to come out of Ireland is the writing, despite rather than because of the subject. Heaney, Longley, Muldoon, Mahon, Carson, MacLaverty: these and others have all countered the hot idiocies of tabloid-type understanding and writing, and committed themselves most honourably to what Mahon calls 'an eddy of semantic scruple in an unstructurable sea'.

Also important for the society, as well as for the literature, is the iconoclastic youthful energy to be found in Robert McLiam Wilson's Ripley Bogle, which most wittily dispenses plagues on both houses (in Ballymena 'teenage girls had posters of Oliver Cromwell on their bedroom walls'; the Catholics of Ulster are gifted in 'their knack of repeatedly impregnating their foul hagwomen beyond the bounds of obstetric probability and their bewildering capacity for talking shite').

In the context of exhausted fatalism which too often clings round Irish cultural pontificating, Wilson's Bogle bracingly suggests that not only the literature but also the society is still open: 'We don't have access to that trunk of years, that big bag of witnessed time. This is our handicap and our strength. . . The old reflect from a point of stasis. They have finished the best part of their business with life. Their story seems complete, ineluctable. The stories of the young are told halfway through. They are in the grip of change. Nothing is certain.' This is not a lone voice: more power to the youthful elbows.

(Photograph omitted)

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