Sunday, July 16, 2017

Flann O'Brien, The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story About the Hard Life (1941)

I thought it was about time I read O'Brien's other novels. True, none of them have the reputation of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, but none of them have a bad reputation, and c'mon, man, O'Brien was something else. You GOTTA read him!

This was only his second published novel, The Third Policeman having been rejected by idiots. Apparently at this point he had given up hope of finding a wide audience, as it's a novel with extremely Irish concerns written in Irish Gaelic (an English translation not having been published 'til after his death, in 1970).

The best word to describe The Poor Mouth is "piss-take:" a piss-take on Gaelic culture and Gaelic writing. It's a sort-of memoir of one Bonaparte O'Coonassa, commonly known as Jams O'Donnell as, apparently, all Gaelic people are, brought up in a poor Irish village. There are two main themes of the novel: first, everyone's obsessed with Gaelicness ("The President presented a silver medal as a prize for him who was most in earnest about Gaelic"); and second, Gaelic culture is just a non-stop parade of lugubrious, miserable squalor: nothing but rain, mud, pigs, and potatoes (so, so many potatoes), and it has always been like this except when it was worse and it will never, ever change except that we're also sad because "[something's] like will never be there again," a phrase which recurs many, many times. The narrator's wife and young son die on the same day, not for any particular reason except that the most horrible things always happen to Gaelic people, at least in the literary culture being satirized.

And that's a thing worth noting: I enjoyed the book, even if it does feel a bit slight, but tell me, HOW MANY OF THE FOLLOWING GAELIC AUTHORS HAVE YOU READ: Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Seamas Ó Grianna, Peig Sayers? Don't bother answering, because I know the answer: it's either "none of them" or "one or more of them; also, I'm lying." Because if you're not an Irish person familiar with Irish-language literary culture, you are just definitely going to miss a LOT. According to the translator's note, O'Brien satirizes the writing styles of these and others in this book, and boy, THERE'S an esoteric bit of satire to most contemporary readers. This isn't to say that you can't basically get what the book's doing, but there are limits.

This Dalkey Archive edition also includes amusing illustrations by Ralph Steadman. The back cover also tells us that "this work brought down on the author's head the full wrath of those who saw themselves as the custodians of Irish language and tradition," to which I say, JEEZ. This should probably be obvious, but: ANYONE WRITING A NOVEL IN AS MARGINAL A LANGUAGE AS IRISH CLEARLY DOESN'T HATE IRISH LANGUAGE AND TRADITION JEEZ. HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR. Also, the previous sentence is going to look very ironic in light of what I'm about to write, which is that unfortunately, Dalkey has chosen to include a back cover quote by the author of something called "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories."  Urgh.  I just checked his blog and I see that he's anti-Trump and thus I'm going to force myself to bite back what I was going to say about him, but really, dude, that's pretty bad. 


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