tue 13/11/2018

Michael Hughes: Country review - epic troubles | reviews, news & interviews

Michael Hughes: Country review - epic troubles

Michael Hughes: Country review - epic troubles

Gritty tale of a paramilitary campaign both ennobled and distorted by Homeric parallel

Michael Hughes - from the Troubles to Troy

Michael Hughes’ second novel, superimposing the post-96 Troubles on the story of The Iliad, rides a wave of Homeric re-tellings, with Pat Barker and Colm Tóibín having recently published contemporary versions. Just as important, though less remarked upon, is the topicality of the Irish Border region, where Hughes grew up, an area that once more finds its identity and security arrangements contested by politicians, this time through the prism of Brexit.

Homeric hints are evident from literally the first words: “Menin” (“wrath”) opens The Iliad, and “Fury. Pure fury.” opens Country. But so naturalistic is Hughes’ narrative that a reader without Homer may not detect any foreign influence. The grimy, gory reality of life during the Troubles sinks in without distraction, while the brisk pace and plotting, and frequent changes of character focus in the narration evoke the turbulent, treacherous world of Ulster politics without any sense of ulterior distortion. Until the very end, at least.

There’s much sordid behaviour on both sides (as there is, too, in the original, of course): the paramilitaries’ method of rounding up young women as concubines, with little heed paid to age or consent, around any hideout they may be using, is particularly gross. The British technique of arranging abortions for desperate, pregnant young women, then turning them gradually into informers, the blackmailable evidence of their illegal procedure serving as ever-present incentive to co-operate, is more clinical, but hardly more moral. The woman in question here is called Nellie (Helen), and her British handler Paris - of course.

It’s historical-dramatic reconstruction at its most immersive.

Country is set immediately after the 1996 ceasefire, but Pig’s (Agamemnon) crew is not ready to decommission. One more campaign might stiffen the resolve of the “higher-ups”. As in Homer, each camp spends as much time fighting within themselves as against one another. In brief, punchy chapters that shift frequently between characters, projecting both plot and points of view with brio, Hughes’ story is both passionate and revolting, in dramatically balanced measure.

Hughes adapts his material ingeniously, and the parallels of the two stories are uncanny. Sometimes this is reflected in the naming: the characters Achill and Pat need little introduction, for example. Even when that link is less overt, the characterisation and plotting are precisely devised, to avoid any jarring doubletakes. So SAS man Henry is Trojan fighter Hector, and Hector’s son Astyanax is Henry’s son Max. Even the Republicans’ pub, corresponding to the Greek camp where their navy would have been beached, is thus called the Ships. It’s historical-dramatic reconstruction at its most immersive.  

Hughes’ greatest achievement is linguistic. Both his narration and the dialogue are grounded and demotic, yet with a subtle, slightly incantatory rhetorical style that evokes the steadiness of the Homeric hexameter. When Pig [Agamemnon] addresses sniper Achill: “...you love nothing more than putting dirty great holes in a man’s skin from half a mile away and watching the blood leak out of him and the life with it,“ both the wetness and the horror are tangible, yet there’s a self-awareness about the syntax that evokes both Irish idiom, and a grave yet fluid sense of the historical moment.

Hughes’ narrative can’t help buckle slightly under the weight of Homeric expectation

Hughes also mimics the lilting bartering and list-making of the original, sometimes - where farm animals are used as payment - convincingly, although when more specifically modern items are on offer, the consequences can be unintentionally comic. At one point a desperate Pig cites an inventory of the enticements he may offer to lure Achill back to the campaign. Starting with “my car”, he proceeds to offer “my sisters... my daughters, even, when they’re big enough…” a repellent but plausible set of lures, and continues with: “The stuff I ordered for the summer, all his. Decking, Garden furniture. A brand new barbecue, never been used once.” The bathos is hideous. Presumably Hughes’ research revealed that already wealthy crime lords could be tempted by cheap garden equipment - if the daughters weren’t sufficient - but this particular list just made me think of a sick Alan Partridge.  

Eventually, Hughes’ narrative can’t help buckle slightly under the weight of Homeric expectation, and the schematic need to freight the ending with epic echoes distorts the grimy realism that earlier held the violence in a necessary perspective. The final section suggests that sectarian fighting, at the whim of “the higher-ups” (Hughes’ version of the gods), is not only likely to continue, but is “the way it has to be”. Even the most cack-handed Brexit settlement will surely avoid such a hateful outcome.

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