Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Troubles by J.G. Farrell *****

My grandfather emigrated from Ireland when he was about 18 years old, came over on a ship in the 1920's.  His older brother was already here in the Midwest, & after he met my grandmother & settled down he opened a bar & grill.  He died when my mom was in her early 20's, before she'd even met my dad.  So I never met the man, but his presence has loomed large in my life none the less.  St. Pat's Day is always celebrated & I grew up hearing the usual stories about how awful it was in Ireland when he left & how the British were just devils over there.  Don't get me wrong, my family wasn't ever very political in regards to Ireland, but I think that idolizing of the IRA was pretty normal in the US back in the day. 
Troubles will have to go down as one of the most memorable books I've ever read.  I know for a fact that the characters will stay with me for a lifetime.  And most importantly it has forced me to look at Ireland in a different way, in a way that takes some of the righteous, rosy sheen off of it.
The year is 1919 & British Major Brendan Archer has just been released from the hospital with wounds he'd received fighting in The Great War.  He doesn't have any family left except an aged aunt, & maybe a fiancee...he's not sure.  He kissed the girl, Angela, when on leave in 1916 at a resort in England & she's written him quite faithfully the whole time ever since.  With no where else to go & much to forget, he decides to visit her in Ireland at the decaying resort her father owns:  The Majestic.
I'm not much of one for symbolism in literature--I know it's there, but I hate analyzing things that much.  But it's hard to ignore the symbolic people of this book.  The Major is the Young Englishman, the one that is reasonable & understands the inequality of living in Ireland at this turbulent time. 
Edward Spencer, Angela's father, is Old England personified.  He thinks the Catholic majority is barely better than animals, ignorant & useless.  He uses them, & is totally surprised when he finds that they have also used him.
Sarah Devlin, a local girl & friend of Angela's, is Ireland.  She is Catholic, quick-witted, at turns very charming & very cruel. 
The symbolism doesn't stop there-The Majestic itself is dying like the English in Ireland.  The vegetation trying to take over the whole building, but there is always a reminder that it was there.
I think the most important thing that has struck me about this book is the way that Ireland back then was populated by two kinds of people who both considered themselves Irish--the Catholic "natives" & the Protestant "usurpers".  Usurpers that had been there for over 400 years, yet were still separate.  They were a massive part of the society of Ireland for those 400 years, but their role was suddenly & violently removed back in the 1920's. 
I see an Ireland that was full of conflict by choice & bigotry.  It was, & while I was growing up it still was, nothing better than the conflict of Israel & Palestine.  I think because I'm American, that I was raised on the story that the "Old Country" was a wonderful place but for the damned Brits, that I'm surprised by the realization that neither side was "right".  Childish, I know, but sometimes it takes awhile to learn the full story.
A most excellent book, with far more to offer than what I can write here.  I recommend it to all.

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