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Suffering postponed

Suffering postponed

Reviews: Gluaiseacht by Alan Titley an Gum 134pp €7.50

At times, the Irish language, as it is written in the public sphere, seems in danger of being lost in a sea of journalese, civil-servant jargon and excruciatingly literal translation. Certainly, reading much of what is written in Irish can leave one feeling a little seasick. In his weekly Crobhingne column in this paper Alan Titley sets his own course, challenging his readers with a rich and inventive prose style that restores to the language much of its native resourcefulness and distinctiveness.

Admirers of Crobhingne may therefore be surprised at the pared-down approach of Titley’s new novel. The fact that Gluaiseacht was commissioned as a work for teenagers may partly account for this difference in approach but this is a book with considerable crossover appeal that showcases Titley’s versatility as a writer. Gluaiseacht tells the deeply affecting story of a nameless young boy who is wrenched from his war-torn homeland (the evidence points to somewhere in Africa) and sent on a perilous trip across desert and ocean to Northern Europe (probably Ireland). It is a page-turner that grips us from the off with its spare and evocative first-person narrative, but it is also a subtle treatment of cultural displacement that charts the journey of a soul in flight from the turmoil of conflict. Our first brief encounter with our protagonist – before he returns to his village to find that all its inhabitants have “disappeared” – suggests that he is already something of an outsider.

He tells us that he hates the girls at the well who behave as if they know more about life than he does. He despises their laughter and seems to view human interaction as something that diminishes his sense of self. (“I felt that they were taking something from me. I felt that I was no longer myself.”) Later on in his journey he unsentimentally describes the home he left as being “fat with the past” while the desert “swells” with the possibility of what lies ahead. The narrative however, doesn’t bother itself much with a backstory and focuses almost entirely on the journey itself (the “movement” of the book’s title), and the shifting landscape, as seen with a mixture of wonder and dread through the eyes of the young boy, is vividly brought to life in Titley’s clipped, impressionistic prose. We are left with a profound sense of suffering postponed and of a young boy struggling to name, let alone understand, the horror that has befallen him. When he holds hands with his new friend, Fatima, he feels guilt at the “human contact” and is reminded of his fellow escapees that haven’t made it this far.

When he dreams he dreams of dogs with four legs and no bullet holes in their heads. These glimpses of the ghosts that will continue to pursue him are rare but are all the more powerful for that, as is the boy’s final, stoic acknowledgement that all his life will “be movement from now on”. Gluaiseacht takes us on a journey that doesn’t end when we turn the final page. Seán Tadhg Ó Gairbhí is a journalist and former editor of the Irish language newspaper Foinse

The Irish Times - Seán Tadhg Ó Gairbhí
06 Márta 2010

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