No Place and Nowhere

Exile - both real and imaginative - has been, since James Joyce, an answer to the problems besetting Ireland and Irish culture. A writer like Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), for instance, embraces - or at least moves toward - silence as a means of articulating his concerns with the Irish dilemma surrounding language.

Writers like Beckett distrust not just the English language or the Irish language, but language in general. For them language is not the 'clear lens' on the world that it was once thought to be. Beckett also manages in his novels and plays to have his characters inhabit a world without too much external detail: he is not interested in placing his characters, situating them into a recognisable landscape. In a way it could be argued that he anticipates the contemporary world where there are no barriers to our movement: where we can be in Ireland and be in touch with a place on the other side of the world through the world wide web. In such a world, the real site of conflict is the inner world of the imagination and that is the place that a writer like Beckett maps.

Many contemporary Irish writers confront this new world. It is, though, the same predicament that has exercised Irish writers down through the ages; that is, making this world their own, attempting to find an accommodation through art with the world they inhabit.

Brian Friel, at the close of his great play, 'Dancing at Lughnasa' (1990), acknowledges that there are other ways of connecting and communicating with the world and with one another besides language. Dance and music are seen as a means of sharing experience and conveying emotion and memory. The irony, of course, is that the Michael - our narrator and guide in the play - must tell us this through the medium of language.

Novelist John Banville (1945-) also distrusts language but recognises that those things that language creates: narratives are necessary and fundamental to our existence in the world. All of his novels mourn the passing of an old world of certainty and surety, focusing on characters who manifest what Banville perceives as a crisis of the imagination for so long celebrated in Irish and western culture. His most famous novel, 'The Book of Evidence' (1989), concerns the imagination and reality. Freddie can kill the maid because she is not sufficiently real to him in the way a woman in a painting is real to him. Freddie (Banville) plays with his readers' expectations of what a novel and a narrative should do and continuously undermines the credibility of the act of storytelling itself.

Some contemporary writers choose to write of places and themes that have nothing to do with Irish concerns. A writer like Michael Collins (1964-) in his novel 'The Keepers of the Truth' (2000) and his more recent Lost Souls (2003) is concerned with mapping the American mid-western territory of Denny's all night diners, of Prom Queens and Quarterbacks: a world we know well from countless movies and TV dramas, as well as literature. These narratives centre round a flawed hero whose task is to discover the truth beneath the veneer of small town community. Murder mystery's are, in a way, lullaby's for the modern age: present-day fairytales that, despite their immersion in a seedy, dark underworld, offer reassurance to readers. For, at least, all the loose strands are satisfyingly tied up at the end and a kind of stark, uncomplicated justice is meted out with the bad getting their comeuppance and the good, while not perhaps being fully rewarded, been given the opportunity at a second chance.

Colum McCann (1965-) is a writer who has increasingly moved into the territory of the 'international' novel. His novel, 'Dancer', is a fictionalised account of the life of Rudolph Nureyev. His earlier work, though, even if it does begin to travel beyond the immediate Irish landscape, remains bound to Irish themes and concerns. 'This Side of Brightness' (1998) is set in New York. It spans a number of generations of New Yorkers who have made the lives out of building that great city. From skyscrapers to the tunnels of the Manhattan subway, this remarkable novel charts the troubled relationship of fathers and sons. It is, in a way, an Irish narrative transposed to America with the main character, Treefrog, coming to learn - as does Orla in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's novel 'The Dancers Dancing' - that it is only with a proper attitude and relationship to the past and to tradition, that the future can truly be engaged with, with all its unknown possibility and potential.

In drama there has been a return, however, to basics with the prioritising of words and language with the predominant use of the monologue by many young dramatists. Eugene O'Brien's 'Eden' (2001) has two characters tell their own version of the events of one night. 'Conor McPherson' (1971), too, is a drama of monologue: characters compelled to tell their stories in order to come to some form of understanding of their predicament. However, the monologue precludes dialogue and thus connection and communication between characters is, in a very real way, not possible. Despite this, though, characters must tell their story, even if it is - in a Beckettian way - a story that only they themselves have access to.

Nonetheless, the Irish desire to tell stories, to weave narratives is still central to our culture, as these works of literature seem to demonstrate. No matter that the circumstances have altered, no matter that the stories being told are different: the original impulse to explain ourselves to ourselves remains the same.

Perhaps one of the finest examples of this in the recent past can be found in John McGahern's (1934-) 'That They May Face the Rising Sun' (2002). The novel manages to give voice to an entire community wherein every person is permitted their position. It is a novel in which nothing happens and yet everything happens. It is a novel alive to the subtleties of character, while also being attentive to the pulses and rhythms of place. In short, it is a celebration of the local and a celebration, too, of friendship and its potential.

Of course, in a novel like 'That They May Face the Rising Sun' McGahern is giving expression to a world and a life that is passing away. There are times when art needs to tell us things that we do not know rather than merely confirm what we already know. With John McGahern's most recent work, it is possible to declare that we also need to be informed of what we may have forgotten. In an Ireland and a world increasingly fixed on material gain and seemingly intoxicated with hate and violence, McGahern's quiet, but assured, affirmation of community and the healing rituals that underpin community is not merely a luxury for his readership to behold, rather it is a necessary reminder of the potency to be discovered in shared human experience and shared human goals.

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