Monday, 22 February 2010

And why should we wish the darkness harm, it is our element, or curse the darkness because we are doomed to love in it, and die. And those who move along the edges can see it so until they fall.

Re-reading John McGahern´s All Sorts Of Impossible Things I am struck by both how much an Irish voice still speaks to me and also the terrible seriousness of McGahern´s writing, until I remember that it is only serious in the sense of how foolish we and our writers might have become – a Parsonic assortment of pranking stylists and simpering romantics wrought redundant by ten or so pages of an old Irish writer´s power.

Though reading in English in Recife has a hypnotic effect, or at least reading anything good or different. Before carnaval I sat in a bar reading (a bizarre enough thing to do here) All The Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen, transfixed enough by the usual tales of very clever young Jewish New Yorkers. And I looked up and around me then it seemed as if the world may have recently come to an end somewhere close by and no-one had told me – men lay straggled across the pavement, women danced between buses belching smoke, music – Brazilian reggae, pagode, frevo and forro – poured from cars and the bar´s stereo and radios held in the hands of other men and women walking by. A translucent moon shone above the palm trees, fringes waving slatternly down at the street, and waking from my book, I looked around half-dazed and thought, in Portuguese, ironically enough, que isso? The living of two mental and cultural minds can be a disconcerting business.

It´s funny too that probably I could count the number of Brazilians who have ever heard of, let alone read, John McGahern on the fingers of one maozinho. This is neither McGahern or the Brazilians fault, of course – why should a Brazilian know about or read the short, lovely, brutal stories of a dead writer from Leitrim? But I can´t help but compare, because two lives lived in one, with the ghost of the old life coming back to stir the memory, make comparison an easy bed pal.

And what city is this, where I live? It is a city which over the course of five days can put around two million people on its streets, every day, to celebrate and drink and dance and sing. Where I stood, last Tuesday at 6am in the middle of 20,000 people (it had dwindled from 500,000) in Recife Antigo watching the final apoteose of carnaval, a few hundred musicians and singers on the stage, most in the crowd appalled at the suggestion that all this would not go on for ever? And where, during all this fun and games, this happens.

Though carnaval seemed a little empty this year, every day much the same, beauty and tradition replaced by holocaustian boozing. The pressure of carnaval can be a terrifying thing for anyone not fully prepared. Proposing the idea that one might, perhaps, stay in and have an early night might lead to assorted Brazilians getting all Salem-witch-trial-on-one´s-ass. And so, feeling old and tired and never quite drunk enough, I trudge the streets from Recife to Olinda to the Galo Da Madrugada, yearning sometimes, though not all the time, for a quiet corner, a quiet pint, and a book of John McGahern stories.

A footnote or three or four.

Footnote One. When I left Ireland (or rather England) to come to Brazil I brought with me John McGahern´s recently published memoirs. As I read his stories now I wonder if he has written more, until I flick to the front of the book and read the words John McGahern died in 2006. A strange thing, to believe yourself to be reading the words of someone who is alive only to discover they have died, and you, distantly removed, have not heard the news.

Footnote Two. Carnaval, if nothing else, provides a second new year with which to gird one´s loins and make oneself a better man. To which end I resolve, with the help of good friend and Drogheda´s finest, Pierce Brosnan (so-called in honour of another famous Droghedense) to give up drink forever and ever. Only it´s not so easy. Carnaval finishes on Tuesday, and Wednesday is Ash Wednesday when all must return to normal. But who ever started a resolution on a Wednesday? I make it through one night in a bar with The Argument and her friends in Boa Viagem Uber Alles, mainly because I´m driving, and as everyone knows, se for dirigir não bebe. Only I, like a shorn Samson, have no words, no jokes, no conversation, without the soft balm of booze, and spend the evening sullenly tearing paper napkins into shreds. By the time we get back to Olinda I can´t take it anymore, and so I bribe The Argument with the promise of some camarão at the bar on the corner, knowing I´ll be able to slake my thirst while she munches away. Thursday too is no good for stopping or starting anything, and there´s a bit of whiskey left over from carnaval, so, but. And over the course of these few days the argument (not The Argument) rages – is all this giving up really good for anyone? Shouldn´t I really, like Paul Calf, just cut down on drinking spirits? During the week? Doesn´t all this abstinence make Jack a very dull boy? Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.

Footnote Three. The Argument likes football, which might be why I like The Argument. On the phone we talk about the Santa Cruz game on TV yesterday afternoon. Don´t tell me the score of the Botafogo – Vasco game, I tell her, it´s being repeated later and I want to watch it. Botafogo won, The Argument shouts gleefully down the receiver. I think I hear her hands clapping in the background. I pause for a moment before summoning two thousand years of Cuchulainic rage. Are you out of your feckin´mind? I yell, apoplectic. What, says The Argument, the phone was cutting out. I couldn´t hear you. I thought you asked me the score. Are you going to apologise for shouting at me? And so it often was between lovers in the Tropics, or at least the sub-Tropics, in the early years of the 21st century.

Footnote Four. On the back of the Faber edition of John McGahern´s Getting Through Michael Irwin of the TLS writes that McGahern has the Irish gift of being able to move fluently and unselfconsciously between a simple and a heightened style. And moving fluently between a simple and a heightened style, would seem, wouldn´t it, to be the very goal of any kind of good writing, even if it´s a goal of which this blog can only occasionally dream.


Anonymous said...

The Pierce Brosnan Drogheda Navan Controversy has been raging for years. Drogheda claims him as their own, him being born there and all. He moved to Navan soon after on account of his mother. Needless to say Bond would have preferred Drogheda. This was the thinking of the local Mayor Frank 'Shanks' Godfrey when he tried to commission a statue of Brosnan as Bond to add to the Walk of Heroes that have done the town proud (Tony 'Socks' Byrne of 1956 Olympic Boxing glory being the most notable).

Folk from Navan got wind of the plan and protested. Diplomatic relations have been soured between the two towns ever since. Navan being a hole though, Drogheda isn't too bothered and one day hopes to erect a statue of Bond to commemorate his birthplace.

James Young said...

I think it´s moments like this when I feel proudest of my blog. While others waste their time on issues like American neo-colonialism and social inequality in the third world, we deal here with the really important about a guest piece on the Ireland/Brazil/Australia bobsleigh-gate at the Winter Olympics?