Tuesday, February 9, 2021

"Discuss the significance of nationalism for contemporary literature with reference to Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark."

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"Discuss the significance of nationalism for contemporary literature"

Seamus Deane's novel "Reading in the Dark" centres around a catholic family in post-war Northern Ireland. The family are haunted by secrets and their story is told through the eyes of one of their young sons. The issue of nationalism features prominently throughout the novel and the political and religious conflict hangs over the whole community. I will discuss whether Deane writes with a deliberate nationalist agenda and assess the significance of nationalism, in this case the want of the main characters to live in an independent Ireland free of British rule, and the effect this has on the novel. I will also look at how, through the characters in the novel, Deane dissects the Irish national character and traces the development of nationalist attitudes.

Early in the first chapter of the novel the narrator recalls a conversation from his childhood which immediately aligns the family as nationalist and Catholic

"They had stories of gamblers, drinkers, hard men, con men, champion bricklayers, boxing matches, footballers, policemen, priests, haunting, exorcisms, political killings. These were great events…like the night of the big shoot out at the distillery between the IRA and the police, when uncle Eddie disappeared."#

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Uncle Eddie's disappearance whilst apparently fighting for the IRA demonstrates that the family have militant republican links. This obviously effects the attitudes of the characters throughout the novel towards the traditional enemies of nationalism, namely Unionists, the Protestant church, and especially the Protestant dominated, British government backed police force.

The fact that the political killings are described by the narrator as a great event is highly significant. Killing in the name of the nationalist cause is seen as justified, the victims as legitimate targets, and the killers as heroes. The political violence is glorified. Deane emphasises the volatile political situation in Northern Ireland, and how the family live with the violence on their doorstep. The family appear to be staunch republicans and these attitudes have clearly filtered down to their young son. Deane implies that the narrator is already hardened to the violence, he has lost his innocence and is already politicised despite being so young.

The issue of nationalism is intrinsically intertwined with the issue of political violence. Deane traces the development of violent nationalist attitudes in some of the peers of the narrator. The narrator witnesses Rory Hannaway getting accidentally run over and killed by a reversing lorry and he feels sorry for a policeman, who on seeing the body, vomited. A year later he is retold the story by one of his friends whilst hiding from police

"Danny Green told me in detail how young Hannaway had been run over by a police car which had not even stopped. 'Bastards' he said, shining the blade of his axe with the wet grass."#

The narrator goes on to describe how it was only after being told this incorrect version of the story he could begin to genuinely sorry for Rory's mother and the driver, and how this "allayed the subtle sense of treachery"# he had felt at the time for feeling pity for the policeman. The narrator expresses how he has almost been brainwashed to hate the police because they represent the enemy of the nationalist cause. Deane is expressing his own personal feeling here that at the root of much of the violence is misunderstanding and the tendency of both causes to blame each other for their plight even if it is unjustified and irrational.

The mistrust of the police is evident in the reaction to the acquittal of a Catholic man, the narrator's Grandfather, for killing a policeman, Billy Mahon. Brother Regan explains to the boys the surprise of the local community when the case was thrown out, even though the man was thought innocent, because he was Catholic "Innocence was no guarantee for a Catholic then. Nor is it now."# Everything that happened in Ireland had a political or religious subtext. The two sides polarized and all issues boiled down to matters of religion or political significance. Matters of justice were secondary.

In the example of the narrator's grandfather the real issue wasn't whether he was guilty or not, it was whether the police would frame him just because he was a Catholic. Another example of this is when the boy and his father and brother are arrested and beaten by the police over the incident with the pistol. The beating is more to do with their republican connections than the crime itself. This type of incident led to the hatred of the police. When the narrator is accused of going to the police, his mother describes them as "vermin"#. Bishop Coulter describes Sergeant Burke's idea of justice as "not…entirely Catholic"#, emphasising the split between the police and the Catholic community.

Regan delivers a powerful speech to the boys about the troubles urging them not to become involved "The whole situation makes men evil. Evil men make the whole situation."# Regan tells the boys that only God can judge them. Deane uses the priest to express hope for for the future and exposes the irony of two groups of people both fighting in the name of God. Brother Regan believes the political violence is morally wrong and is corrupting the younger generations. Deane in this example is perhaps indicating that he thinks that lack of education is to blame for young men taking up arms against each other.

Deane dissects the Irish national character in the section of the book in which the narrator reads The Shan Van Vocht. The fact that the cover is green is significant, representing Ireland. The title of the book, meaning The Poor Old Woman, a traditional name for Ireland is another dig at the almost self pitying attitude of the Irish. The heroine of the book has a Mediterranean, deliberately non-Irish appearance which the narrator finds instantly alluring. She was interesting and exotic whereas the male Irish hero was boring and morbid. The narrator talks to her and promises that he wouldn't go out to the rebellion. This shows that the boy isn't that committed to the nationalist cause and that there are more important things to him such as love. This is another optimistic passage where Deane hopes that the future can produce an Ireland in which people are less fuelled by hatred. Deane is suggesting that a man's love for a woman should be greater than his love for his country.

In "Katie's Story", Deane uses the two children as a metaphor for the problems within the Irish personality. They never left the house, only spoke Irish and had virtually the same name, Francis and Frances. Their supernatural behaviour leaves their nanny haunted. Deane implies that there is something inherently peculiar within the Irish personality that if left isolated with no contact with the outside world, manifests itself in inappropriate or depraved behaviour. There is a recurring "greenish light"# representing Ireland which indicates something supernatural or haunted. Deane is criticising the insular nature of nationalism, how it makes the Irish naïve about the world outside Ireland. James Joyce also used the colour green to indicate perversion or paralysis in a character. Deane is a nationalist, but he is able to see the flaws in many of the people who support the cause.

Throughout the book there is sense of mistrust directed towards the foreign or unknown, which is directly related to the hatred of having to live under British rule. Uncle Dan tells the narrator that the British bombed Washington, a meaningless tale to poison the boy against the British. America is talked about with a sense of awe by the boy, the promise of a better life. The uncles are too stupid and introspective to see beyond Ireland. They talk about never trusting McIlhenney, part of the reason being he "looked like an Italian."#.

Deane seems to infer that because of their hard-line support for the nationalist cause and the hatred of the British, this has left some of the older generation, such as Uncle Dan, with a total inability to see the bigger picture. They have become totally non-thinking pawns in the name of the cause and they are only interested in one thing- hating the British, but not because of any great political convictions on their part, but because as Catholics and they've been taught what to think. Later on in the novel the narrator talks about his need for a "global vision".#

In "Rats" Deane uses the story of the rat infestation as a metaphor for the occupation of Ireland and criticises the short-term thinking of the nationalist fighters. The fact that the rats live in the ruins of old air raid shelters is significant. The shelters are left over from the war, the British war. The extermination of the rats is really what the Catholic community would like to do to the British. The rats scurrying in to their homes are really the British invading and ruling their community. The narrator talks about the "battle"# as if they were fighting for freedom. He finishes by reflecting that perhaps the events of the afternoon had not solved the rat problem, just in the same way that continued battles with the British will not end the occupation, and how violence breeds violence. Fighting the Unionists would not make them go away. It serves to unite them and harden their resolve

"I imagined the living rats that remained, breathing their vengeance in a dull miasmic unison deep underground."#

In the story Crazy Joe tells the narrator about Larry McLaughlin and the disappearing woman, the haunting experience happens to Larry after he has crossed the border into the south and then crossed back again

"The world on the side you leave is never the same as the one you reach. And you know what else about the watery brook?"

"Yes. It marks the border."#

Deane is implying that there is more than a physical border between Northern and Southern Ireland. People in the north have an inability to escape and they are almost paralysed by fear. Crazy Joe goes on to say how it is a shame that people aren't shot at the border anymore. Deane emphasises the negative effect that these blind nationalist attitudes have on peoples' thinking.

Despite being the very symbol of the oppressor Sergeant Burke's conversation with the narrator's mother is very significant. Deane gives the policeman, frequently the bane of the family's life, a personality and he makes perhaps the most important statement in the novel "Politics destroyed people's lives in this place."# He also talks of the "poison"# of political violence spreading into the younger generations. Burke asks the narrator's mother why peace could ever be achieved. In her answer Deane is answering for the entire Catholic community "Injustice. The police themselves. Dirty politics."#

The narrator's grandfather dies wracked with guilt after ordering the execution of Eddie and rejects the church on his deathbed. He felt betrayed by the church "When he had fought for Ireland, who had condemned them more?"# He fought for the nationalism yet achieved nothing and died entirely disenchanted with Ireland. Deane uses him to comment on the futility of violence, and overall it is the nationalist cause that causes the family to be haunted by the past through the death of Eddie.

In conclusion, nationalism has huge significance throughout Reading in the Dark. Nationalism is at the core of all of the family's problems. All of the secrets and lies relate back to the killing of Eddie, a nationalist killed by his own people. Towards the end of the novel Deane changes to a reflective mood and the both the church and the political violence are questioned. At one point the priests are jokingly compared with the police, but the narrator's mother however insists that they belong in "different worlds"#. I think that Deane is trying to make a serious point here that like nationalism, both the police and the church were oppressive forces on Catholic society.

The novel ends on a very negative note with the death of the young British soldier on the family's doorstep during the resurgence of the troubles in 171. The narrator's father feels sorry for the boy's father when he comes to visit "Poor man…even if his son was one of those."# Deane brings the political conflict back down to a personal level. Like the young soldier many of the central characters in the book are in fact victims of the nationalist cause even though they supported it. Despite being a nationalist himself Deane does not glorify the nationalist cause and the characters in the novel are not propaganda pieces. Many are quite the opposite, haunted and flawed people who end up disillusioned with fighting for Ireland.

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