BOOKS: April in Spain, by John Banville

A Season in Spain

Review by Denis Sampson in Dublin Review of Books

April in Spain, by John Banville, Faber & Faber, 368 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0571363599

This new novel, following his last, Snow, moves us beyond those many prize-winning novels under the name John Banville, Benjamin Black and, indeed other narrators who have guided his novels through the intimacy of place, character, and dizzying plotlines. From his earliest novels of the seventeenth century, he has written biographies of esteemed scientists, but what is remarkable about his extensive body of fiction is how he draws readers into plotlines and characters who are almost incomprehensible.

Banville invests his worlds in the sequence of Black crime novels with engrossing characters such as the alcohol-addicted pathologist Quirke. And he continues to reintroduce Quirke in novel after novel since his readers find his bad temper, impatience and provocative interactions engaging.

But readers are seduced by strong characters other than Quirke. Banville is a master observer of others, of local places and of the details that enliven his brief sentences. He moves easily from Ireland to other European countries, including Britain. And, of course, these crime novels are dense with the details of murders, violence, and legal incoherence. There are policemen and political characters, middle class and working class and affluent figures, sometimes traditional unionists.

“Terry Tice”, the novel begins, “liked killing people. It was as simple as that. Maybe ‘liked’ wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid. But money was never the motive. Not really.” Tice is brought to vivid life in five or six chapters scattered through this novel. He is constantly lawless and unsettled. He lives largely in London, is active in criminal activities and in dubious relationships with young women and young men. He is sexually active in numerous ways. He spent some years in the war and reveals himself as an orphan who grew up in the West of Ireland. At one point he must leave England, as a murder compromises him, and he moves to Dublin. This man and his companion, Percy, whom he kills rather casually, are outside the middle class world observed by Banville, but from chapter one to the final chapter, Tice and others are connected by violence and murder.

In April in Spain, the setting is indeed Spain, San Sebastian, with Quirke on vacation with his latest wife, Evelyn. Evelyn is a psychiatrist, happily known as “Dr Freud”. “Freud was an Austrian, she said, not German, and so please remember am I.” She was an Austrian, and knowledgeable about the war and her many family members who were exterminated. She was formerly married but found an Irish husband and decided to live in Ireland. “Humour, as you know, is an essential part of the psychiatric project.” “And am I your project?” “Read Freud’s book on jokes,” she said. “You will learn much.” She has an even temper and can humour Quirke, no matter what his anger. “Someone said of some Irish poet or other that he stood at a slight angle to the world. It is my job to view these things from an angle,” and Freud’s wisdom helps her to live with unhappiness, the devastation of the European war and personal conflicts.

For almost one hundred opening pages we follow these tourists through the city with almost nothing happening. Then we discover that Quirke has a faint recognition of a young doctor in the hospital ‑ she is Irish, but reveals nothing of her past self. Quirke believes he may have known her as a woman who was murdered in Dublin, along with her brother, except that she disappeared from Dublin without being involved in the criminal/legal investigation.

We discover a little about her because her youthful friend Phoebe, narrator in the novel, knows that Quirke and others are obscurely joined in perverse family relationships. Quirke does not really know what became of her since she left Dublin, but he wishes to know and believes she may be working here in San Sebastian. She may have changed her name to become anonymous. She uses the name Angela Lawless in the hospital, and April Latimer. Both names are somewhat humorous.

The novel moves away from San Sebastian as memories of Dublin grow and Quirke is linked to the prosperous and politically prominent Latimer family. Allusions to a set of incestuous relationships provide hints to the complexity of the brother/sister murder.

There are many minor characters who have minor roles, and this is Banville’s forte. His minor characters are wound into the worlds of his narrators. Quirke and Evelyn, of course, are central but Quirke’s interest in AL and Phoebe’s interest in Quirke and Evelyn lead to a set of legal and political figures in Dublin. They are minor but influential, with high financial and political status: Bill Latimer, Conor Latimer, Detective Hackett, Strafford, Ned Gallagher and Dick Fitzmaurice. What happens in the later chapters in Spain involves them in confusing ways, including two murders.

But who is Banville the narrator? Who speaks in the narrator’s voice? He is briefly drawn and also has a philosophical outlook. He discloses a novelist’s voice, a private voice.

Top picture: Feeding the birds in College Park, Dublin. By Bill Heaney

1/3/2022

Denis Sampson is the author of Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist  His  memoir A Migrant Heart, was published in 2015.

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