A Review: Guests of the Nation by Frank O’Connor

This story is at once warm and cold, sweet and brutal. It is about brotherhood and its opposite – war. The action takes place during the Irish war of Independence in 1916. Two English soldiers are being held hostage by a group of Irish volunteers. A swap is possible with the English, but if Irish captives are shot, these two unfortunates will also be shot. The bleakness of this scenario is lightened by Frank O’Connor’s humour.

The narrator of the story is one of the volunteers, known as “Bonaparte”,  for reasons untold, and his companion is called Noble. The two English soldiers are called Belcher and Hawkins. Belcher is a huge, quiet man, moving around the place – like a ghost – as Bonaparte thought. He follows the Woman of the House everywhere, carrying buckets and baskets and loads of turf for the fire. But Hawkins made up for it. He talked all the time, and argued about religion every night with Noble.

“Adam and Eve! Adam and Eve! Nothing better to do with their time than pick bleeding apples!”

Once he tackled the Woman of the House about the war in Europe but she gave him his answer:

” . . .  and think you’ll deceive me because I’m only a simple poor countrywoman, but I know what started the war. It was the Italian Count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple of Japan.”

And she blamed everything on “Jupiter Pluvius”, a deity no one had ever heard of!

Each evening the four men would play cards together and Bonaparte thinks to himself that he never saw two men take to the country as completely as they did. They knew all the locals and went to the dances and could dance “The Waves of Tory” as well as anyone. Bonaparte and Noble didn’t bother to keep a watch on them any more.

As Bonaparte says:

” . . . you could have planted that pair down anywhere from here to Claregalway and they’d have taken root there like a native weed.”

But the day arrives when Jeremiah Donovan, another volunteer, tells them that four of their own had been shot that morning and that Hawkins and Belchar had to be shot in reprisal.  Jeremiah tells this  news to the Englishmen but they refuse to believe him. Hawkins gets annoyed by his continuing with this “joke” and when he sees that they are in earnest he entreats them, asking why they want to shoot him; weren’t they all chums?

The prisoners are marched out to the bog and Bonaparte feels so sick he can’t speak.

“I had the Smith and Wesson in my pocket and I kept fingering it and wondering what I’d do if they put up a fight for it or ran, and wishing to God they’d do one or the other. I alone of the crowd saw Donovan raise his Webley to the back of Hawkin’s neck, and as he did so I shut my eyes and tried to pray . . . Hawkins had begun to say something when Donovan fired, and as I opened my eyes at the bang, I saw Hawkins stagger at the knees and lie out flat at Noble’s feet, slowly and as quiet as a kid falling asleep . . . “

Belcher then, with great dignity, ties a handkerchief around his own eyes and says:

“I never could make out what duty was myself . . . I think you’re all good lads . . . I’m not complaining.”

One second later he was dead too. O’Connor writes these sentences simply, without drama or sensation. Simple, straightforward and brutal. And it makes me think of all the wars that ever were. All the young men, the boys, killed in their thousands and all for what? Make war to make peace?

I’m going to include a short poem of my own here.

LAMENT

My mouth is stretched – a soundless wail of anguish

For the sorrows of the world

An eye into hell in the corner of my room

Cry out your lamentations, prostrate yourselves

And weep, and weep, and weep.

I will leave the last word, and the last

sentences of the story, to Bonaparte:

” . . . and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

Soup anyone?

Here’s a quick recipe:

1 tblsp olive oil; 1 carrot; 1 leek; 1 onion; 1 large spud; 1 cube veg. stock; 400g washed nettles; 50g diced butter; 50ml double cream.

Heat the oil, add the chopped veg and the diced spud, cook for 10 mins. Add the stock, cook another 15 mins. Add the leaves, simmer for 1 min. Blend, season, and stir in the butter and cream.

I wouldn’t use onions myself; horrible slithery, slimy things. I wouldn’t use the cream and butter either.

Nettles only grow near people – not in the wild; isn’t that interesting?

A SOAP-BOX and A POEM

God. It’s all so one-sided. Generally, we are careful not to offend those who believe in a religion, but shouldn’t that work both ways? I get very annoyed when someone asks me if I believe in god – as if god was a given, and you either believed in “him” or not. For me, there is no god or goddess or godhead to be believed in or otherwise and when I give this answer I get two different reactions:

Some people become defensive and really angry and begin to harangue you with arguments to prove the fact of a god; they tell you that one day you will know the truth and that they feel sorry for you. They tell you to look around you, at the wonders of nature, the intricacies of the human body etc.  

Or, they pretend to be amused; they wag a finger at you and laugh and say that god has not forgotten you; worst of all – they promise to pray for you. Their arrogance and complaisance and condescension, their bigotry and utter stupidity is incredible. and it never occurs to them that they might give offence. As my father used to say about these people – they’re as well raving there as in bed.

All the same, when I was a child I did have faith and here is my nostalgic poem:

THERE WAS A TIME 

In the dim, silent church

A glow of votive lamps

Fluttering blue and gold and red

Whispered prayers in corner shrines

Beneath the outstretched hands

Of painted saints

Beads clicking, slowly told

Sundays burst in glory

Sweet choir lifting voice

The Truth sang in my mouth

I filled my eyes with bright

And lustrous threads

The golden flame of candles

Veiling mysteries at the altar

The heavy scent of flowers

Inhaled security

And a weightless peace

In certain knowledge of hereafter

Our hearts were warm, absolved

Beloved of our maker

And safe in the house of God.

Ulster poems – Lament for Hathimoda, Abbess of Gandesheim.

Poetry lovers are familiar with Séamus Heaney who won the Nobel Prize, and most people would know that he came from Derry in the province of Ulster in Ireland. Ireland has many poets and writers – a friend of mine said it was a wonder the island didn’t sink under the weight of them – but Ulster has more poets per capita than any of the four Irish provinces. I will post one here today and every Friday, for a while . . . This one is anonymous and translated from Latin. It was written in the 9th century, most probably by a monk. I hope you like it.

Thou hast come safe to port

I still at sea

The light is on thy head

Darkness in me.

Pluck thou in heaven’s field

Violet and Rose

While I strew flowers that will thy vigil keep

Where thou dost sleep

Love in thy last repose.

Bookish thoughts . . .

The classics: In my opinion many of them should finish half way through. I’m thinking about David Copperfield – shouldn’t it end when Dora dies? I can barely remember the rest of it except that David marries Agnes and lives happily ever after. And what about Wuthering Heights? Does anyone remember what happens after the first Cathy dies? I don’t; of course that could be the influence of old movies which finish at that point. And poor wee Jane Eyre – I have a fondness for books that begin with the main character as a child – but after the wedding fiasco and the fire and the death of Rochester’s first wife, the book seems to lose colour and interest. And then there’s Eugénie Grandet; for me that book ends when her cousin disappears from the story.

I’m sure there are many more like this but that’s all I can think of for the moment. I need to do a trawl around my books!

“Loose Threads” from The Red Petticoat

Two loose threads in the sheet

Separate and come together again

Like lovers in the wind of her breath

She makes a story for them

And they bend and dance and spin

At her command

But she must bend and dance herself

To a rhythm not her own

Blown by the stormy breath of others

The lovers are cast aside

Their story slides away

As she is born again

From the warm sheets

Sans mental teeth anyway.

Endings . . .

Many books have very disappointing endings, especially thrillers. The last few chapters are boring dreary things with the detective/policeman/woman explaining in tedious detail how she/he unraveled the plot. With other genres it’s as if the writer flounders a bit and doesn’t know quite where to finish the tale. But then there are wonderful books with wonderful endings and here are a couple of them:

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burke’s house. A wedding present from the bride’s father . . . Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fires, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

Ablutions by Patrick de Witt

“I will try to be happy, you think, and your heart and chest feel a plummeting, as in the case of the hurtling rollercoaster, and your heart wants to cry and sob, but you, not wanting to cry, hit yourself hard in the center of your chest and it hurts so much but you drive on, your face dry and remaining dry, though it had been a close call, after all. Time passes and you shake your head. Work will drive you crazy if you let it, you say. You do not speak for a long time after this.”

I can read these books any number of times. Every word is in the right place, the last sentence as important as the first.

Cycles

I called you Peter

And you rocked the earth

My church is full of stones

I called you Fire

And you consumed me

My mouth is choked with ashes

I called you Truth

And handed you a sword

How often I am pierced

And pierced again

Old scars produce new blood

The letting leaves me

Desolate and grieving

The cycles of my life

Revolving endlessly.

We All Die in the End – an excerpt:

Jim nodded and said goodnight and waited for Connie to button up her new brown duffle-coat. It is a man’s coat, he thought again, looking at the long sleeves of it and the breadth across the shoulders. Whatever she says, it is a man’s coat. I’ll say it to her later, get her going. His own grey tweed was threadbare but he was attached to it. Connie wouldn’t let him have a new one anyway. She belted the door open and Jim ducked as it swung towards his face. Barney winked at him and locked the door behind them. They wriggled deeper into their coats, turning their faces from the wind, and then Jim pointed:

            “Oh, look!”

            The fair-haired boy was crouching at the corner, his arms hugged over his thin chest, and him bare as a baby. He turned when Jim and Connie came out and moved towards them with his knees close together.

            “The b-b-b-bastards left me.”

            He sniffed hugely and wiped his face.

            “I thought they were going to throw me in the sea! I’m fuckin’ freezin’ . . . give us a jacket for God’s sake, will you?”

            Jim looked at Connie. She was laughing, her eyes going up and down the pale, shivering figure.

            “Is it your birthday?” she asked. “Where did they go, your friends? God you’re a hoot, isn’t he Jim?”

            “I’ll get my fuckin’ death out of this, an’ me ma’ll be waiting and I’ve no phone.”

            The boy’s voice went up and up.

            “Oh Jesus God I’ll kill the poxy bastards. Give us something to put on for fuck sake!”

            He began to dance around like a boxer, swinging his arms, and then he remembered to cover himself. Connie turned to Jim and he backed away from her, shaking his head. His chest hurt in the cold air and he coughed. She can’t make me, he thought. I’m not going to. For a moment the three of them stood there, until bolts were shot in the door behind them.

            “Quick,” Connie said. “Charlie’s still around, cleaning and that. Go on, knock the door.”

            And then she turned and knocked it herself.

            “What’s your name, boy?” she said.

            “Frank.”

            “Frankie Pankie,” Connie laughed. “Isn’t that right, Jim? Frankie Pankie! God, he’s a hoot . . . Charlie!” she roared, banging on the door.   

            “There’s a bare-assed bird out here. Let him in. Come on, we know you’re there, we know you’re not gone yet.”

            There was no sound from behind the door and then the lights went out. The wind rose with a cruel nip; the sea rolled black and oily beyond the wall and the first drops of rain were blown over Frank. He ran against the stout door of the pub and shouted for somebody to fucking well open up, and then he ran up and down the street listening for a car, for his friends to come back. Connie watched him and Jim stood well behind her, his coat clutched tight.

            “Poxy bastards! Frank screamed into the wind.

            “Make your man let me in,” he said to Jim and Connie. “Yous know him better than me. He must have heard us knocking – they’ll have put him up to it, the fuckers. How am I to get home? Lend us the taxi-fare will yous?”

            Jim felt the rain on the back of his neck and turned up his collar. Poor bugger, he thought. He looked at the boy’s thin legs, white as milk in the dark night, and his arms like strings wrapped around his chest. Jim was cold himself; he wanted to go home to his quiet bed and lie against the warm bulk of Connie’s back.

            And then he saw Connie taking off her own coat and his breath puffed out in a snigger. What was she at now? She threw it around Frank’s shoulders and he seemed to sink under it, bending his knees, trying to get his feet into it too.

            “Come on now.” Connie marched him quickly away.

            “You come home with us, boy. We’ll mind you, won’t we, Jim? Sure you’re only a little chicken. Are you sure you’re eighteen?”

            She belted Jim’s ear and he staggered.

            “Some husband you are,” she said.

            “Letting your wife give up her coat and you walking there wrapped up like a teddy-bear, much good it’ll do you, I’ll deal with you later.”

            Jim knew Frank was looking at him, expecting him to say something, to fight back, but he stared at the ground and coughed his hard, tight cough.

            Frank turned after Connie. She walked fast with her face up to the rain and the pleats of her long skirt swung from side to side below the coat. Every time a car passed Frank stopped to look but it was never his friends. Jim wondered what they meant to do. They wouldn’t know where he was if they came back. He thought of saying that to Connie but his ear smarted. He fixed his eyes on the bare feet under the long brown duffle-coat. They were wet and splashed with mud and they moved quickly.

            Connie put her key in the door and shoved it open. She grabbed Frank by the arm and pulled him inside and he stood in the dim hallway pushing one foot over the other. His face was pale and damp and he didn’t look drunk any more.

            “Come on, come on,” Connie said, and he followed her.