“You have to keep a moment sacred and free for the good things, the things made with care,” says an aging man to himself in a story in Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s 2006 debut collection, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse. The line came to mind as I read and reread the thirteen sinuous, meticulously honed stories in Ó Ceallaigh’s mind-altering new collection, Trouble.
Ó Ceallaigh has stuck with the short story – Notes was followed in 2009 by another collection, The Pleasant Light of Day – and he keeps the form tight but expansive. The stories, set mostly in Bucharest, are shaped around more or less mundane but consequential situations, episodes and irritations, energised and propelled by human drama, a need for action, the overcoming of obstacles, or shifted perception. A security guard absconds from Dublin with his gangster boss’s ex and winds up in Bucharest (“Trouble”), an adolescent comes of age into sex and loss in rural Ireland (“Smoke”); a writer is repetitively self-bound to romantic interludes while scripting movies and soap opera (“My Life in the Movies”, “My Life in the City”). In “Deadbeat”, a wanton aesthete in “his seventh decade” endures – or doesn’t – an unwanted encounter with his grown-up son. In “Graceland”, “Bells in Bright Air”, “Spring”, and “Dead Dog”, a writer-father takes care of his young daughter.
For Ó Ceallaigh, the writer’s task is to render experience, to project a sense of what life is, to seek or make meaning, in a language that is “heightened and focused”, yet “comes off naturally”. There are cries of disgust whose fury and pitch prompt comparison with Céline: “fertility is a transmissible disease”. But there is nothing of what George Steiner called Céline’s “frantic loquacity”. The prose is controlled, economical, at times almost impossibly compressed. Yet it flows. (These stories must be read at their own pace, and many times.) From “Trouble” (What he gets into those twelve pages), this is Dublin: “There’s a skanky heroin trail like rats’ footprints in shit along the river by the black swamp where the Viking boats first pulled up and it ramifies out north and south and west into the sprawling suburbs of identical houses that await a Hieronymous Bosch to sweep them together with a broom and paint them in subterranean orange flame ‑ even as the country geared up for credit-fuelled boomtime it was rotten.” So much here recurs variously repatterned throughout these stories: rapacious human and animal appetite; technology and finance; the bearing of past on present and future; analogous socio-cultural and organic processes; the rage for elsewhere that brought the Vikings to Dublin and has, in other stories, the populace of Bucharest jammed, faceless in snarling cars; the great culminating vision of a righteous cleansing (if figurative) flame – all conveyed in a deft, syntactically unshowy arrangement of simile, associative juxtaposition and imbricated metaphor, courtesy of a man driving at night.
Man is a at war with his own appetites: “all my heavy flesh wished for was to wish for nothing” says the narrator of “Island” (a sozzled hallucinatory retelling of the violent origins of human land cultivation and the Crusoe and Eden myths), but “I grew curious”. He is half-tame, half-domesticated, allied with the dog. With his wife and children all “gathered-in”, the man in “London” steps out with his wolf-like beast. Peace is not enough. In “Trouble”, the same insatiable need for more courses through rats and seagulls and heroin addicts and overweight men in bars, through the Vikings who founded Dublin and the multinational criminals that now stalk it, through the thieving ex-stripper and the strip-club owning gangster, the new rich on the Black Sea coast riding speedboats past an envious “urban peasantry”, through the envious peasantry, and through our narrator who thieves and shops and fucks and drinks and reads and renounces and winds up begging to be let at his neighbour’s waxed crotch.
Nothing is still. History shunts or stumbles from lull to conflagration. Nature moves in cycles of growth and decay. Satisfaction is brief; it cannot last a sentence: “I thought I might stay there forever, or until I got something even better.” Walls and ceilings leak, peel, blister, grow mould. Everything changes and everything is connected. Lives are made in what remains of a city sullied by history. Movement is often involuntary. Things convulse, shake, shudder, tremble and twitch. Teenage boys, a woman’s breasts, water, earth and sea, “dense hieroglyphs” on a computer screen, a little fist. The land “trembles on the brink of revelation”. In attending the instance Ó Ceallaigh finds everywhere convergence. The same impulse that creates, destroys. Man is a half-rational animal. The daughter is Piglet, the kid; she skips like a goat. Bucharest pedestrians resemble a herd of wildebeest, the hostile streets their habitat. Love gives rise to fear and violent urges. Terrified his wife will take his child, the father in “Graceland” understands “how men in such situations were capable of doing terrible, irrational things”. Instinct is objectified, undenied, and necessarily repressed: “He whispered to it and caressed it like you would a cat to gain its trust then he gripped the loose skin of the nape and removed it squirming from the room. No, nothing unpleasant was going to happen.”
“First Love” is “a semi-fictionalised rewriting” of the wartime diary of SS officer Felix Landau, “Judengeneral – in charge of Jewish matters” in the Ukrainian city of Drohobycz. An unfashionable act of imaginative empathy with a murderous oppressor. Landau – this is the masterstroke – seems a familiar Ó Ceallaigh narrator, a man (of words) preoccupied with writing, with appetites for food, drink and love, with the particularities of work, air temperature, and the light-effects on leaves of evening sun. He longs for an absent mistress. Otherwise, he is matter-of-fact, Arendt’s banal: “Worked on them into the evening. Took a few hours with comrade Urban to visit a woman cook – stew and new potatoes and buttermilk. Modest place but clean.” In love and politics, he ditches an old life and code and commits to the once transgressive new, finding a sort of freedom in which anything, or anyone, may be sacrificed to the cause.
But Ó Ceallaigh is not content – in a phrase from his essay on Walter Benjamin – to “express the malaise”. A story in Notes saw a man drawn closer to the world by reading Hemingway: “It was a feeling for beauty that the writer of the story possessed. In the words he chose, in his intention to observe and report the world, there was something very pure and solitary.” And Hemingway echoes still, but renewed vision springs now from another source, and the pure and the solitary are no longer paired. In “Graceland”, the father and his two-year-old daughter return home: “Their journeys were always strewn with leaves, sticks, stones and flowers to be investigated and collected. She drew his gaze down into the detail and texture and colour of small things. They would discover a colony of ants and stoop to follow the line where it ascended a tree trunk or crossed a footpath and disappeared into a crack in the concrete. She registered birds and dogs and cats and an entire universe of living things that he would otherwise be deaf and blind to.” But the father must not lose himself. He must remain “outside”, alert and “prepared for accidents”. He must take care. Reflective moments too have turned less solipsistic than in earlier stories, more thoughtful, self-indicting. Where before, after a break-up, a man would relish his recovered breath, now we have: “She was trying to get at the fact that I did not love her the way she wanted me to, the way I should have. And I pretended I did not hear what she was saying, and that made me a liar.” (“My Life in the City”) Refusals of vengeance, acts of forgiving mercy – the father is spared the feared custody battle – hint at “a morality that might save the world”.
Ó Ceallaigh is a rare literary artist, patient and meditative, with a gift for the evocation of simple things: light, heat, water, air, mud and dirt; food and drink: the smell of roasting peppers; the weighted drowsiness of dusk: “a red sun hung low over open sea”. His sentences are supple, swift and heady with figuration. Without snag or ceremony they traverse waking, dream and boozy doze, a world of the senses and inner view. The scope is vast: swathes of space and time alive in the progress of moments. A desperate, raging disgust, a curiosity both damning and sanctified, perpetually insatiable appetite at odds with a craving for self-abnegation, all ablaze in fantasies of a righteous, purifying flame. Pleas for mercy; intense visions of our current plight. “You are doing something almost beautiful out of chaos and shit,” he says of the writer. For once, a superfluous word.
David O’Connor is a reviewer and writer working in Dublin