Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Goats are Singing - Banished Misfortune (3)

The Goats are Singing 
Banished Misfortune (3) - Dermot Healy

The third story in Banished Misfortune is The Island and the Calves, a story that I found it harder to find my feet in than the first two.

It takes place in England during Easter Week to the soundtrack of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ and is suffused with religious imagery. The world seems not yet to have solidified, and there is a sense that what is important are the things that can't be pinned down - "History became the studying of disappearing softness, for hardness always remained, the most accessible material of man."

The story is soaked in mysticism, whether from the bible or the fields. The biblical book central to this story is the Song of Songs, a book closer in spirit to paganism than any other.  My disorientation as a reader is reflected in the way that one of the consciousnesses in the story uses the cattle in a field are used to find where the wind is blowing from. The lines between imagination and landscape are blurred as this orientation then seems to involve a wholesale move of the field and the calves onto an island.

It is a story that emerges from dreams, still damp with the foggy dew.  The ghost of Evelyn Waugh, strangely enough, haunted a corner of my mind as I read this one.

The Curse
This is a far more straightforward seeming story. A group of boys swimming in a canal are briefly joined by a local bigwig and his right-hand man. One boy, the narrator, approaches the bigwig to ask for work with his horses. Instead, he is asked to enter the residents lounge of the local hotel and say "You rotten cunning bitch" to the barmaid for some slight the men felt in her treatment of them.

The story is soaked in the old Anglo-Irish tension, class tension multiplied by nationalism and at the end the boy turns the tables and  shouts back at the two men and the others in the bar that have holed up in - "You dirty fat English gets."

The two men are more childish than the children, their world circumscribed by drink; the horse breeding and training they are ostensibly involved in is not a serious pursuit: "Webster-Smith is the son of General Tom, who was buried along with his famous stallion, Tain Rue, but Ted only goes through the rudiments of horse-training."

The sense that the men are part of a dying breed is emphasised by the colour of their bodies: "The two men are so white that none of us wants to look at them. It seems that this is the first time the have ever had their clothes off, that their paunches have seen the light of day." I see in this story Healy writing his version of the Irish 'big house' story, but from the outside. It is filled with a sense of decay that is reminiscent of Dubliners.

It is a wonderfully realised story and the first paragraph is worth quoting in full. History as urban landscape: "The canal comes from where I live, fast as horses, taking along the twisted leaves from the strange plants in the tropical garden that settled there after the last war. She goes under the church and takes the spire along a quarter of a mile. Next, is crushed by the walls of the mill that go up a hundred feet, so that she is brick coloured and hampered by false rapids. The rats slide down the wheel and sometimes the army boys in their stiff boots pick them off with pellet guns."

Life and long grass has been getting the better of my reading and blogging recently but I hope to have further posts on Banished Misfortune "soon", and then move on to Healy's first novel Fighting With Shadows.

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