John Spain, ‘A rough guide to Eastern Europe’, review of The Pleasant Light of Day, in The Independent (14 March 2009).

[Source: online; 20.06.2009]

The modern Irish short story too often is still very traditional, with lots of rain-sodden farmyards, stifling small towns, inhibition, alcohol and sexual abuse. Even the writers who abandon rural misery for either the urban wastelands or the D4 excesses of the new Ireland still seem to be driven by the same concerns. You can take the man (or woman) out of the bog, but ...

Which is why Philip Ó Ceallaigh is such a breath of fresh air (although the air in his stories is frequently more fetid than fresh). Ó Ceallaigh is a long way from Holy Catholic Ireland. His short stories are rarely set here. And they have more than mere geographical distance ... they are imbued with a different sensibility, an independent way of thinking and a guilt-free physicality.

This book is Ó Ceallaigh’s second collection of short stories and is very much in the mould of his first, the award-winning Notes From a Turkish Whorehouse.

The long, keynote story in that collection was “In the Neighbourhood”, a recreation of everyday life in an apartment block in one of those dreary suburbs that surround cities in Eastern Europe or Russia.

The tatty block, like its inhabitants, is falling apart. Life is frugal and sometimes fraught, even though there is not much to fight over. People take comfort where they can, from the bottle, pointless conversation, casual sex. Nothing means very much, yet there is a kind of honesty in this simplicity and immediacy that will be familiar to anyone who has travelled in Eastern Europe.

Ó Ceallaigh is clearly attracted by the elemental quality of life on the other side of Europe, a legacy of the communist past and something that has been lost in the confusion of consumerism in the west. He has travelled Kerouac style through the region and has lived in Romania for five or six years - the Bucharest apartment block from In the Neighbourhood is a setting he knows well and many of his stories seem to be autobiographical.

Many of the stories in the new collection have the same vague, existential searching, with more rambles through remote countryside and strange cities, arguments with locals and emotionless sexual encounters. They are at once banal and profound, hilarious and melancholic.

This time the canvas extends from Eastern Europe to Egypt, war-torn Georgia, and Galway among other places but the same disconnected air and sharp observation permeates them all.

“Another Country”, a story set in Georgia, reveals what being a poor, freelance reporter in such a situation is like if you get embedded with the locals instead of an army and stick around for a few months. You Believe in God, set in Cairo, shows how a visitor gets conned even when he thinks he knows better. “Tombstone Blues”, set in a monastery on the edge of the Sahara, is full of spiritual searching, although even here the searcher has an explosive sexual encounter with another pilgrim while the monks sleep next door.

One story, “The Alchemist”, borrows its title from Paulo Coelho’s multi-million selling novel and is a merciless send-up of his semi-mystical ramblings. It’s not bad but it’s hampered by the fact that ‘the inspirational writer from Brazil’ is so absurd he’s almost beyond parody.

Apart from all the walking on the wilder side of Eastern Europe, which is fascinating in itself, Ó Ceallaigh is also a great writer and some stories are worth reading just for that quality. The title story, “The Pleasant Light of Day”, about a father and son, is an example, as is the opening story, A Very Unsettled Summer, about obsession after a relationship has ended.

Ó Ceallaigh has done it again. His rough guide to Eastern Europe, other places and internal spaces is a refreshing change from the same old, same old of most Irish short story writers. With the possible exception of Anne Enright, who has other concerns, it’s the best collection since his last one.

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