On 28 January 2008, one week before the publication of The Truth Commissioner, Ian Paisley, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, announced the appointment of four Victims Commissioners. They included Patricia McBride, whose brother was an IRA man shot dead by the SAS, and Bertha McDougall, whose RUC reservist husband had been shot dead by the INLA. Responding to suggestions that four commissioners were appointed because he could not agree on a single appointment with Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, replied that "Nothing could be further from the truth".
In Northern Ireland, as in any site of political conflict, truth is a slippery commodity. As Montaigne has it, "The truth of these days is not that which really is, but what every man persuades another to believe." Or persuades himself to believe, he might have added. The four main characters in David Park's novel are all subject to persuasion about the truth, by others or themselves.
Henry Stanfield, the Truth Commissioner, is a serial adulterer recently widowed and estranged from his daughter, who is living in Northern Ireland. Francis Gilroy, ex-IRA man and new Minister for Children and Culture, is trying to get to grips with the poetry of Philip Larkin and arrangements for the wedding of his pregnant daughter. Retired RUC detective James Fenton is in a childless marriage and makes regular van journeys to Romania to help its children, one of whom he befriends. The former IRA man Danny, whose real name is Michael Madden, is working in the US as an illegal immigrant and hopes to marry his pregnant Hispanic girlfriend.
The lives of these men are shadowed by an absence signalled by the disorientating tautology of the first sentence: "He's never been anywhere he's never been". He turns out to be Connor Walshe, a teenage petty criminal, one of the "disappeared" whose case the Commissioner finds himself obliged to investigate. The consequences of a past act come to haunt those who engineer the politics of the present. Reading The Truth Commissioner, wanting to know what happens next, we are inevitably drawn to what happened before. The novel is written entirely in the present tense, a device which can often seem contrived and melodramatic. Here it is perfectly appropriate: not so much a Historic Present as an Implicated or Inexorable Present, suggesting that truth itself is a narrative. Do we commission the truth, as we might a piece of writing? Do we commit the truth, as we might an act of violence?
Park offers no easy answers. The truths behind the people in his novel are, as in real life, provisional and circumstantial. Their present is habitual. Gilroy believes in "good habits": "in the old days it was bad habits that got you killed, and the worst habit of all was to be in the right place at the right time, leaving yourself freeze-framed, the perfect picture waiting to be shot". Fenton's life has been conditioned by "thirty years of sitting in offices and interrogation rooms, laced with the sweet stench of sweat and fear". Stanfield, brought up to write and speak "correct English", is appalled by the slangy delivery of his young staff. Danny, happy with his present life, looking forward to the birth of his child, still wakes up too early, wondering if it is because of "some programmed biological clock, whose hands cannot be stopped, which wakes him every morning at the same time. Some legacy of a different time and place, some throwback that cannot be thrown away."
Northern Ireland has been represented countless times in fiction, whether in novelistic or filmic form; and in Northern Ireland we are great sticklers for authenticity. We can spot a dodgy Belfast accent or location shot a mile off. David Park's account reads true. The real Victims Commissioners have their job cut out. They could do worse than to read The Truth Commissioner, though the reading might not be too comfortable.
Ciaran Carson's new translation of 'The Tain' is published by Penguin Classics