Eileen Battersby, review of Heaven Lies About Us by Eugene McCabe, in The Irish Times (15 Jan. 2005)

Details: Eileen Battersby, ‘Powerful polemics motivated by injustice: in Eugene McCabe’s stories: Ireland is a hell of angry sex and tribal hatred’, review of Heaven Lies About Us, in The Irish Times (15 Jan. 2005), weekend, p.13.

In a world too full of words, the all-seeing Eugene McCabe emerged as the shrewdest of writers. He seemed determined not to squander language. While others wrote relentlessly, he used his words sparingly. There was an eloquence in his reticence.

Writing for him is not a job, it is merely the means of expressing something specific he needs to say. His body of work is relatively small and his reputation - established by a trilogy of short stories also dramatised as plays (Cancer, Heritage and Victims) in the mid-1970s - was consolidated in 1992 by a remarkable novel, Death and Nightingales.

That narrative, shaped by Hardy as well as by Irish social history, possessed a Shakespearean grandeur. McCabe’s theme was that of multiple betrayal; most emphatically, the betrayal of love and its horrific righteousness of revenge. In telling the story of 19th-century Irish life, a place shattered by poverty, class conflict and a politics of desperation designed to shake off a coloniser, Death and Nightingales deservedly won its place as one of the handful of great Irish novels of the 20th century.

It also confirmed that McCabe, the cautious writer, wary of writing, breaks his silence only when a story must be told. So strong was the impact of the novel that it forced a later generation back to a near- forgotten play. King of the Castle had shocked the Dublin audiences of the 1960s in much the same way as had the works of John B. Keane. McCabe’s play explored that most hypocritically complex of Irish obsessions, sexuality, with the same level of candour he would apply to the inter-religious political stalemate of Northern Ireland.

When a writer tackles the demons stifling his society, readers listen. The arrival, therefore, of a new book by McCabe, Heaven Lies About Us, is guaranteed to generate excitement. But it is not a new novel, nor is it a collection of new stories. It is instead the gathering together of stories spanning 30 years. This realisation should not be as disappointing as it is, but then McCabe, as has been outlined, does not publish regularly. Every Irish reader aware of McCabe - and this must be a wide contingent considering the classic stature of Death and Nightingales - may well already have read these stories. This volume may be intended as the first British edition to bring McCabe to a new audience who, unaware of the lasting cultural and historical relevance of the stories within their Irish context, may instead be oppressed by the anger and melodrama.

Returning to these stories has proved problematic. They read less as narratives than as bulletins, deliberate snapshots chronicling the woes of a borderland country in turmoil. Collectively they share anger and rage. McCabe is far less interested in individuals and the heroic than is his near-contemporary, William Trevor, who is more drawn to the private than the public. If memory and nuance inspire Trevor, McCabe’s preoccupation with history is far more polemical.

His Ireland is a bleak hell of angry sex and tribal hatreds. There are few moments of tenderness, and little humour. The only humanity gracing these stories is that which McCabe confers on Harriet, the despairing hostage truth-teller in ‘Victims’. While her responses, filtered through her wealth, privilege and reading of poets, are sophisticatedly despairing, there is a sole idealist, Mickey, the old down-and-out dreamer in ‘Roma’. Having allowed his existence to revolve around the purity of a young girl, he is devastated to discover her sexual curiosity is as earthy as that of her peers.

Even the descriptions of the Border county landscape present throughout the stories has a tight-lipped clarity. McCabe is no romantic; he is a realist merely based in a pastoral setting. His realism is brutal and often melodramatic. Sex decides, and it is the furtive, impersonal sexuality of barter, fear and shame.

Much of the dialogue, clipped and raw, would probably convince better on the stage, supported by gesture and long silences, than it does on the page. As early as the opening title story, McCabe makes his intentions clear. This is a story of abuse.

A child has been sexually abused and, in her eyes, disgraced by her brother, a boy viewed as a hero. No one will listen to her. Her mother, of course, takes the side of her son. The child seeks refuge in a lonely grotto and dies of exposure. The facts are familiar, and the reaction to them even more standard. McCabe rarely has to resort to his imagination for his material; the social and cultural horrors are all too readily at hand.

As a collection, this volume stands on the middle stories, the famous trilogy. These three stories, ‘Cancer’, ‘Heritage’ and the near novella-length ‘Victims’, have been dramatised. The first of these, the shortest and least political, may well be the finest. It is about two elderly brothers, one of whom, the one who was never ill, is now dying. There is a pathos, even a jauntiness about it. It could have been written 100 years ago, or last week, always a good test for a story.

‘Heritage’ and ‘Victims’ are rooted in the story of Northern Ireland. In ‘Heritage’, a Big House hunting party takes a pack of hounds off cross-country in pursuit of otters. It is a diversion, distracting the guests from the political situation. A local small farmer takes exception to the outing when it approaches his three acres. He confronts the colonel and his friends by addressing one of the party, a man he knows. “I’ve nothing against you or yours, John,” he says. “I only want you and this man to get back to the bridge, and go down the far bank. From there on you can hunt to Enniskillen, you can kill all the otters in Ulster for all I care. What I say is plain and I mane it, and you better tell your friend, the colonel, that.”

Later in the same story two young lovers, who have yet to consummate their affection, discuss the tribal tensions. The girl, a nurse, admits to imagining how she would set fire to the hospital and burn the irritating Catholic patients (“they’d all be burned, about 30 less of them”). Ultimately, the young man drives up to British soldiers at a roadblock and is shot. Rumour holds that it was suicide.

‘Victims’ is far more ambitious. In it, McCabe follows a group of bickering IRA activists through a sequence of events that culminates in laying siege to a Big House owned by a jaded couple who are having supper with their married daughter and their guests. Throughout the story he attempts to juxtapose the barbaric with the civil. The terrorists speak French. A young female graduate in need of a cause, and distrusted by her fellow IRA activists, wonders what she is doing involved in a siege.

Throughout the stories, McCabe is generous with information. In the final four pieces, which appeared in 1999 as Tales From the Poorhouse, published by The Gallery Press, each narrator - The Orphan, The Master, The Landlord and The Mother - tells their respective story. The setting is Famine Ireland and the narratives read as monologues shaped by historical fact. In the pieces narrated by the poorhouse master and the landlord, historical detail overwhelms the individual stories and renders them surprisingly artificial. History is Ireland’s burden. It is also the major canvas for McCabe’s anger, and it is his source.

One of the ongoing debates in literature is that of the good versus the important. Many writers, such as Nadine Gordimer, have important messages. The weight of their truths overshadows their art. Other writers are artists; their stories engage and inspire. A handful of writers, such as J. M. Coetzee, are as great as they are important. The Irish short story reads like a roll-call of honour, including James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Michael MacLaverty, Liam O’Flaherty, Mary Lavin, Maeve Brennan, John McGahern and the master, William Trevor. All of these share a feel for story.

There is no doubt that, of this elite group, McGahern is the most obvious social commentator. Nuance more than story may well provide his inspiration.

McCabe is different - he responds to facts. Re-reading these 12 at times stilted and surprisingly dated, but powerful narratives, it is impossible not to be struck by his anger and polemic. Injustice, not the need to tell stories, is his abiding motivation.

[Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times; Heaven Lies About Us by Eugene McCabe Cape, 309pp. £11.99]

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