Monday, August 18, 2008

Destined to be read long into the future (Books - Cal by Bernard MacLaverty)

Great novels are made not by the number of their pages, but by the themes they touch upon, the way in which words and events are used to bring you in touch with an experience of them, the reach of those events to lives beyond those involved directly in something just like them, and finally their indelibility first on your mind and heart and then on the canon of books we call literature. Bernard MacLaverty's Cal drives that home in 150 pages that are as densely packed with passion and tension as any I've read in Dostoyevsky or Hardy.

The 19-year-old title character lives in Northern Ireland. A Roman Catholic, he is hounded and even physically attacked by the Protestant Orangemen. His friends have joined the IRA in response to the violence with which they are threatened. Cal finds the violence too much for him, he even had to quit his job at the abattoir. Still his friends ask for his help as his father has a van:

'Did you ever hear of Archbishop Romero? He talked about the "legitimate right of insurrectional violence." Oppressed peoples have the right to throw off the yoke in whatever way they see fit - and that's from an eminent doctor of the Church. If somebody is standing on your neck you have the right to break his leg.'

After he and his father are burned out of their home by the Orangemen, Cal serves as as a driver for his friends and, against his better judgment, ends up involved in the murder of a local policeman. He goes into hiding in the country to escape the dangers facing him in the city, because he has fallen deeply in love with the daughter-in-law of the woman on whose farm he has gotten a job, and because he is deeply troubled morally for his involvement in the murder. He is now in the impossible position of being wanted both by both the Orangemen as an accomplice and as a deserter by his friends in the IRA.

MacLaverty conveys not just the greater sweeps of political strife and moral anguish, but his detail to detail writing of individual episodes is wracked with tension.

Cal indicated and moved across the road, double parking directly in front of the shop. Crilly put on a pair of sunglasses and got out.

'Keep that engine running,' he said.

Cal turned up the collar of his coat. Crilly stood on tiptoe, looking over the dulled and lettered half of the door. Cal saw him flip up the hood of his anorak and pull his scarf over his mouth. He pushed the door open with his foot and stepped in. The door swung shut after him on it spring but in the instant that it was open, as if it was the shutter of a camera, Cal saw two women customers look up in fright. The door stayed shut and Cal began to count. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. He knew that to count accurate seconds he should say on thousand and seventeen, one thousand and eighteen. A man came round the corner and began walking towards the car. Was it the law? No double parking allowed here sir. But the man had a dog on a lead. It kept stopping and sniffing at the bottoms of walls. After each bout of sniffing it lifted its hind leg and peed over the leavings of some other dog. One thousand and forty, forty-one, forty-two. He looked down at the tray beside the gear stick and to his horror saw that the pistol Crilly had left him was nakedly visible in the street lights. He covered it with a dirty cloth from the glove compartment. The man was now almost level with the car. Cal turned his head away, pretending to look for something in the back seat. Where the fuck was Crilly? Was he choosing a wine? The man stopped patiently for his dog again then moved off into the pool of the next street light. Cal rolled the window down to see if he could hear anything. A record on a jukebox played faintly farther along the street. Cal watched the door,k trying not to blink, until his eyes felt dry. Where was the big bastard? Was it a thousand and ninety? He gave up the idea of counting. Crilly had been in there two or three minutes. Then suddenly the door sprang open and in it shutter-instant Cal saw the two women lying face down on the floor. He stuck the car in first and revved. Crilly, carrying a Harp polythene bag, thumped his shins and cursed getting between the two cars at the kerb. He jumped into the passenger seat. The gun was still in his hand. They were moving before he had time to shut the door.

When Cal first works at the farm, he hides in a disused barn for several days to avoid returning to the city. He has no change of clothes and no shower or tub. MacLaverty writes of the condition of his clothes, how they feel against his skin, how he cleans his teeth with cooking salt and soot - with the kind of detail that made me able to smell it the combination of mildew and human sweat, to feel the chafing of damp dirty pants against my legs. They are happening to Cal, but his discomfort is mine. You might think it's silly to exemplify writing that deals with national struggles through description of banalities, but these are the things that turn a literary character into a human being for the time I am reading. The struggles of nations would not be important if they didn't effect the lives of individual people. This book exercises my empathy through choosing the essential details. I am immersed completely in the title character's point of view, because of the experience MacLaverty creates. He built it word-by-word, detail-by-detail, but they no longer feel like words and details but like streams of events and currents of feelings happening to someone in particular. The conflicts that converge are great ones - the bloody political and religious struggles of a oppressed people, a first great passionate love, and the dilemmas of a sensitive and thoughtful teenager as he makes the moral choices that are going to shape his whole life. I felt deeply the greatness of these struggles as I read. Though Cal was created of MacLaverty's s imagination, his experiences were real ones to me. I'm still seeing some of the scenes play over in my mind's eye and am wondering what happened to some of the characters in the future. That makes me think that this book is destined to be read long after the times it describes have been confined to the realm of history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bernard MacLaverty is an astonishing writer and this is a fabulous book. I recently saw the Abbey Theatre's production of Owen McCafferty's Quietly and my reaction to it was the same as my reaction to Cal when I read it about 25 years ago. Like a punch to the stomach. As someone from Northern Ireland I think Cal is one of the best cultural responses to The Troubles...