The Light of Amsterdam
By David Park
Bloomsbury | $29.99
IS FICTION yet another victim of Northern Ireland’s penchant for political violence – mutilated and deformed, sidelined and silenced? Writing in 1992, the critic Patricia Craig thought so. “It is well known,” she argued in her introduction to The Rattle of the North: An Anthology of Ulster Prose, “that conditions in the North of Ireland, from Plantation times on, were never sufficiently settled to foster literary activity and that the development of the novel in particular was consequently retarded.” If this seems strange and somewhat outlandish, the idea finds tacit support in mainstream perceptions about Northern Irish writing.
When it comes to the Troubles, it is generally thought that poetry, rather than prose, offers the most sustained and meaningful means for interrogating the conflict. We might dub this the Heaney Effect, for such is the power and popularity of the work of Seamus Heaney, particularly in America, that he is often invoked as both the first and the last word on what is known locally as “the situation.” Emerging in the seventies as the state collapsed and the North was plunged into three decades of violence, he belonged to a generation of Northern Irish poets that included Michael Longley, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson. These were writers seeking a form of poetic redress, testing the form and its ability to arrest action, to reframe experience, to explore what happens when the bullet and the ballot box are irrevocably intertwined. Their poetry eschewed easy answers and insisted on asking difficult questions. It carried a torch, passed on by Yeats, which proclaimed that while it is out of the argument with others that we make rhetoric, it is out of the argument with ourselves that we make poetry. Although their writing would reach a global audience and help draw attention to events on the ground, this success was not without cost. The price paid was the expectation and burden felt by subsequent Northern Irish writers that they must in some way turn their art to the subject matter of the Troubles.
And so, while the Nobel Prizes have been doled out, what of the lowly Northern Irish novel? In contrast to such high-profile poetics, fiction has languished in relative obscurity. The two most popular forms, the Troubles thriller and the Across-the-Barricades romance are generally dismissed by critics – too clichéd, too exploitative, too bereft of the kind of artistic rigour that such serious events demand. The work of Benedict Anderson offers one potential reason for the supposedly compromised nature of Northern Irish fiction. In his landmark study Imagined Communities (1983) Anderson links the emergence of the novel in the eighteenth century with the rise of the modern nation-state. It is the novel that allows individuals to imagine themselves as part of a unified national community, he argues. Given the North’s fraught political status, its competing and antagonistic loyalties to both Ireland and Britain, we might not be surprised that it deviates from traditional models of fictional development.
So if the Troubles were bad news for fiction, what about the 1990s, the Peace Process, the Belfast Agreement and the move toward a more normal society (whatever that might mean)? Have recent political developments opened the floodgates for Northern Irish fiction? Critic Francine Cunningham would disagree. As early as 1996 she asked, “Now that the ceasefire has been announced what will happen to all the Northern Ireland writers? Where will they go for their material?” One pictures a canny publisher with an eye on the market – “Northern Ireland? Bombs, bullets, bigotry. That’s what readers want. That’s what sells.”
The fiction of David Park rebukes these arguments. Straddling these events, it is a reminder that the Troubles were neither the whole story, nor a literary crutch for the aspiring local writer. His novels are interested in both the after-effects of the conflict and those people who the Troubles barely touched. In the words of a character in The Light of Amsterdam, his most recent novel, when the Troubles started “we did what everyone did. Dug a deep hole and climbed in.” Park writes about the process of climbing out of that hole on a personal and political level. His fiction is about coming to terms with the past, reframing the present and realigning the coordinates of the future.
While it was poetry in the seventies and eighties, we might one day regard the nineties and the noughties as a golden age for Northern Irish fiction. Park belongs to a generation of novelists that emerged in this period, one that includes Bernard MacLaverty, Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson. MacLaverty’s Lamb (1980), Cal (1983) and Grace Notes (1997) are all breathtaking. For a younger generation’s response to the situation, Patterson’s Burning Your Own (1988) and McLiam Wilson’s Ripley Bogle (1989) and Eureka Street (1996) are provocative, insightful and irreverent in equally dazzling measure. These writers have used the novel to map the transition to a post-conflict society as well as chart the more mundane realities of life in the twenty-first century.
The Light of Amsterdam is David Park’s eighth book. He made his literary debut in 1990 with the short story collection Oranges from Spain. This was followed by novels: The Healing (1992) and The Rye Man (1994), then Stone Kingdoms (1996), The Big Snow (2002) and Swallowing the Sun (2004). Published in 2008, The Truth Commissioner is Park’s most acclaimed book to date. It received extensive media coverage, won numerous awards and was selected as BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. The novel explores the work of a fictional Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an idea imported from South Africa, set up to address the social and psychological scars left behind by the Troubles. It is about those imprisoned by the past and the difficulty of moving forward and attempting to write a fresh chapter in the history of the North. In this vein we might recall the negotiations leading to the Belfast Agreement (1998), where British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke about feeling the hand of history on his shoulder. If the force of history was being invoked to unlock longstanding rivalries, there is also another sense in which history itself has always been the problem. Dates figure prominently in the Northern Irish psyche – 1690, 1798, 1916. The North enacts Stephen Dedalus’s pronouncement in Ulysses that history is a nightmare from which one must ultimately try to awake.
The Truth Commissioner confronts these issues head on and interrogates the possibility of just such a historical awakening. The question that underpins the book is whether full disclosure and absolute truth are in fact a good thing. As one of the four main characters comments, “the truth rarely makes things better and often it makes them worse.” The Truth Commissioner is Henry Stanfield, a failed husband, estranged father and regular visitor of prostitutes. As the novel proceeds one wonders what kind of redemption is possible under the guidance of such a flawed individual. But Park reminds us that because we are imperfect, messy creatures, we should perhaps not be surprised then that the marks we leave on the world are inevitably imperfect.
The Commission is tasked with unearthing the truth behind the disappearance of Connor Walshe, a police informer who was murdered by the IRA and whose body has never been discovered. The family want to know what happened, to bury the boy and have an opportunity to lay the past to rest. Alongside the Stanfield narrative, Park weaves the stories of three individuals intimately involved in Walshe’s disappearance. They include ex-IRA man and now culture minister Francis Gilroy, a soldier in a decommissioned army, who is struggling to come to terms with the world of politics, the poetry of Philip Larkin and the marriage of his pregnant daughter to a yuppie from England. We also meet James Fenton, ex–Royal Ulster Constabulary man and Walshe’s former police handler. Fenton spends his days in a form of eternal atonement, fundraising for his church and driving charitable goods to an orphanage in Romania. Michael Madden is the third character called to testify. Another ex-paramilitary, he has relocated to the United States, changed his identity and started a new life with a local woman who is pregnant with their first child.
The Truth Commissioner is propelled by the quest to find out what happened to Walshe. We explore the question of who bears the blame for his death, and whether the present political situation can withstand the washing of this dirty laundry in public. Writing in the Guardian, Joseph O’Connor describes the novel as “a remarkable tour de force, [one] which tries to keep faith with redemptive solidarities while it smoulders with quiet rage against injustice and bigotry.” Park’s novel enacts the debate sparked by critic Edna Longley, namely that the North’s enduring problem has been its obsession with the past. In a society keen on remembering, Longley argues, a little collective amnesia might not be a bad thing.
IF The Truth Commissioner is a deeply political novel then The Light of Amsterdam, Park’s latest outing, is a deeply personal one. It is the author’s first since retiring as an English teacher and taking up his pen full-time. Unlike in the previous book, this story is populated by characters who managed to escape the worst of the Troubles. It opens on the day of the funeral of George Best, one of the greatest footballers who ever lived. Best’s descent into alcoholism has been well documented; in Park’s hands, the boy from an east Belfast housing estate becomes a symbol of grace and a reminder of the sublime possibilities of human experience. On the opening page an old autograph is, like the man himself, “readable and perfectly formed.” Such sentiments underpin the ways in which Park draws his characters throughout the novel. We find each of them in the midst of their own existential crisis, grappling with the disappointments of middle age and the dysfunctional relationships that surround them.
Whereas The Truth Commissioner is a directly Northern Irish book, The Light of Amsterdam wears its origins more lightly. It is the first of Park’s novels set almost wholly outside the country of his birth, and tells the story of three sets of people in various states of crises, each making journeys to Amsterdam on the same weekend in December. Alan is a recently divorced art teacher, struggling to relate to an angry teenage son, his companion on the trip. Karen is a single mother, reluctantly dragged on a hen party by an ungrateful daughter on the eve of her wedding. Marion and Richard are garden centre proprietors, seeking to reignite lives that have lost their lustre. Against these silent sorrows, Amsterdam is a place of possibility, a multicultural melting pot in which everyday experience might become transformed and transcendent. “Look at every street where every possible human permutation seemed to flourish,” Park writes, “and no head turned to stare or finger pointed.” Characters are redeemed by their experience of the city. Their lives are reinvigorated and renewed by an urban beauty that triumphs over the exhausted narratives of domestic drudgery at home.
In The Light of Amsterdam Park shows he’s as adept with quiet desperation and personal tragedy as he is with a broad historical canvas and questions of truth and justice. Such versatility has made him one of the most lauded Northern Irish writers in recent years. The writing is about the intimate detail, the patient observation, the revealing metaphor. It peels back layers, exposing habitual behaviours, capturing the quiddity of everyday experience. Most salutary of all, in The Light of Amsterdam Park throws a series of lifelines for his floundering characters. He hints at the possibility of more meaningful ways that we might exist in the world and alongside one another. The book is about estrangement, not simply between different people from different places, but also as a result of the generational gulf that makes aliens of parents and their offspring. Unsurprisingly perhaps for an ex-teacher, Park attempts to bridge the gap, to show readers that a further shore is reachable from here. He does it through writing that is attentive, tender and humane, qualities the novel holds up as key to each character’s personal redemption. Perhaps then, in such an un–Northern Irish book, we are reminded that deep down Park is a quintessentially Northern Irish writer.
Matthew McGuire teaches English at the University of Western Sydney. His novel, Dark Dawn, was published by Constable Robinson in April.