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Another one of my all-time favorite books, and I do think this is a masterpiece, one of the great novellas written in English. With terrorism front and center, well, we've been there before and this novella demonstrates that the extremes of life (such as war) still offer the most fertile terrain for the highest literary art. Proxopera What an incredible metaphor! Even more amazing is that it describes the actual activities of the terrorists. Fiction couldn't come up with that metaphor. Only in Ireland, with its immense literary tradition (saving western civilization and all that), could terrorists find such a compelling way to elevate their activities into the realm of myth. Full credit to Kiely for latching onto this metaphor. The way he builds the tension throughout the novella until Binchey is bouncing the car down the path into the lake is just superb. So much to comment on, but what I chose to study with this reading is how Kiely creates and sustains a sense of menace.Thomas Flanaghan, in his introduction to The State of Ireland: A Novella and Seventeen Stories, a story collection of Kiely’s that also includes Proxopera (which was first published in the US in TriQuarterly #45 in 1979), calls the novella Kiely’s Intruder in the Dust, and goes on to say that it is " . . . an indictment of those people, passions, and malignant principles by which the culture that claims his deepest loyalties has been savaged." And Flanaghan’s statement touches on one of the primary senses of menace that Kiely creates and sustains: the unrelenting realization that a way of life, a way of being, has been destroyed forever, not just for the narrator, but for the culture he lives in, and it extends to the land, the trees, the rocks, even the lake. Right from the second sentence Kiely shows how deep the sickness goes: “That lake would never be the same again."The backdrop for Proxopera is "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, a topic, in this the 21st century, that has been much written about and has now receded (once that didn't even seem possible!), but in 1977, when this novella first appeared, it was one of the first works of literary fiction to address the reality of what was happening in Northern Ireland. Unlike now, bombings, murders, kneecappings, were a daily occurrence, but they were also a fact of life that hadn’t been assimilated yet. Proxopera is an attempt at that assimilation, hence the lake never will be the same again. So Kiely establishes menace at the beginning by introducing the notion that a monumental change has occurred, a change so fundamental that it has seeped into the very fabric of the natural world. He builds on this by linking it to the narrator who asks: "Was it better or worse to be young now than it was, say, forty-five years ago?" Kiely then begins weaving in the narrator’s life with the description of the natural world. This creates a growing sense of menace because we feel that something bad has happened, something that has affected the narrator in such a way that he can’t even look at the lake, the trees, the rocks, without a resonating remorse for what has been lost in this place he lives.Then Kiley shifts into the second gear of menace as the narrator and his family return home. The narrator senses that something is wrong, a premonition, too much quiet, and then we see it too: the man wearing the felt hat and a gas mask and carrying a shotgun. The family is quickly taken hostage by IRA terrorists. Menace takes center stage with the action. But Kiely does not rely solely on the events to maintain the menace, he chooses to heighten it using several techniques of characterization and language.Characterizion. The narrator’s son, Binchey Two, as he is sometime referred to, is portrayed as a hothead with a smart mouth, and he’s constantly mouthing off to the terrorists, challenging them to fight, threatening to get even, so that you just know that he’ll be knee-capped or worse. He’s an incendiary character in the midst of a situation that requires a cool head and the expectation that he will cause trouble adds tension and menace because of how the terrorists respond to his behavior. The characterization of the narrator quite artfully adds to the sense of menace in two ways. First, he is a former English and Latin teacher and his introspective passages reflect his learning and poetic sensibilities, it’s subtle, but the menace increases because you don’t want these bad things to be happening to such a person. Secondly, and building on the first, as the narrator’s anger towards his captors grows, his poetic sensibility begins to deteriorate, mirroring the decline towards barbarism in Northern Ireland.Another way that Kiely uses characterization is how the narrator refers to the terrorists as Gasmask, Soldier’s Cap, and Corkman. These labels dehumanize them and help to maintain distance, heightening the sense that they could do anything. There is one amazing scene where the narrator mocks them by comparing their masks with that of a rapist, implying that they are in fact poor excuses for terrorists. That scene actually brings together in a few pages every technique Kiely uses.Language. The main use of language to establish and maintain menace is the difference between the poetic introspection of Binchey, and the matter of fact description of the action scenes with the terrorists. We are constantly shifting back and forth between the poetic sensibility and stark reality. This is further heightened as Binchey’s language begins to deteriorate from barbed Latin quotes into good old Anglo-Saxon curses. Also, as the tension and moral dilemma mounts, Binchey’s introspection becomes less lucid, reflecting a more agitated stream-of-consciousness.Finally, Kiley maintains the sense of menace by shifting the action from the terrorists to Binchey’s moral dilemma of whether to go through with the act the terrorists want him to commit. This becomes the highest sense of menace and it is one that lurks underneath the narrative from the beginning, and links back with the meaning of the title. It’s not just that the terrorists commit acts of terror, it’s that they make innocent people commit the acts for them, in proxy.
I was finally spurred to read this novella, after reading Turnpike Books had republished it. In June, 2014, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review Colum McCann wrote "It’s a perfect piece of literature and encapsulates the sadness and terror of what went on in Northern Ireland during what is euphemistically called 'the Troubles.'" This is the first Kiely I have read, although I have had a volume of his collected stories on my shelves for about 10 years. It was recommended by a bookseller at Vertigo Books which had moved from Dupont Circle in Washington DC to College Park Maryland. I recall it was a bargain book so good value. Nonetheless, Kiely has sat, overlooked, on my shelves until now. He is a masterful story teller, and his descriptions of rural Ulster, and its people deepen the reader's understanding of the true tragedy of this time in the North - the loss of peace. Throughout the novella, there are accounts of random killings, always encapsulating the loss of these lives by referring to the victims by name, and details that tell us who they were. These accounts in a few words convey the true horror of the times, and deepen our dread as events proceed after gunmen invade a countryside home and hold the family hostage. In addition to the republished edition of this novella, it is often included in Kiely collections. After McCann's review, copies of the book were as scarce as hen's teeth. I got a copy of The State of Ireland: A Novella and Seventeen Stories where it is included. This morning I discovered that the Kiely volume I already ownedThe Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely.Benedict Kiely was born in Omagh, County Tyrone in 1919. This was before the partition of Ireland. Kiely's father was from Donegal, one of the two Ulster counties (the other being Cavan) which remained in the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland). He worked in the Omagh post office after finishing secondary school, already wanting to be a writer and scholar. He realized that he wouldn't achieve this if he stayed in Omagh so decided to go to a Jesuit seminary to study for the priesthood. After a year, he was hospitalized with a spinal injury, and during his recovery decided he wasn't meant to be a priest. After recovering, he went to University College Dublin which was the beginning of his life in Dublin and later the United States where he was a visiting professor at several universities. In 1996, he was given the highest honour for writers, Saoi of Aosdána, by the Arts Council of Ireland. Kiely passed away in 2007 at the age of 87. Every year in September, the town of Omagh hosts a weekend literary festival in his name. Information for 2015 is available here :https://www.facebook.com/KielyFestiva...
I wanted to like this book more than I did, because of the high praise it has received from the likes of Colum McCann, who rates it as one of his favourite books about Ireland and Anthony Burgess, who declared it 'nearly flawless as a piece of literature', but unfortunately I have appreciated a number of books about the conflict in NI more than this one.The plot of the very short book surrounds an IRA gang taking over a farm and forcing an ex schoolteacher to drive a bomb to the home of a judge who lives in the same County Tyrone town. Binchy One (distinguished from his son by number or the elder / younger adjective) faces the dilemma of abiding by the gang's wishes and destroying the place that he has grown up and loves, or refusing and as a result possibly losing his family.Despite its short length, personally I found parts of the novel overwritten, in that the language was very flowery, and I never felt that I got to know any of the characters. Despite this, Kiely did so a good job, however, in conveying the anger of the violated family, as well as showing how invariably in such a conflict, events often bring together people who are known to each other within their community.This book preceded Brian Moore's examination of the subject of the proxy bomb in Lies Of Silence by over a decade, but to be honest, I much preferred the latter book. I'd still recommend that anyone with an interest in the conflict here should read this novel, but it hasn't encouraged me to go back to Kiely's other work. Given the price of this novel on Amazon though, I'm tempted to go to the second hand bookstore in Belfast and buy a few of the copies they have available at £2 each to see if I can make a few quid! :)
I read about this novella in THE WEEK a few months ago, where it was recommended by a featured author. I was then dismayed that used copies were running $90 (!!!!!) on bookseller sites. Twice, I found and ordered copies that were a third that price; both times, the sellers cancelled my order. Finally, Friday, I located an digital copy on Open Library and put a hold on it. It became available last night, I checked it out before I went to bed, and I just finished it today. What a powerful, poetic, and mournful look at The Troubles, and war in general! This needs to be returned to commercial circulation immediately. The overall rating by users is ridiculous. This is easily a 5-star work.
An exceptionally written, profound anti-war story set in Northern Ireland during what was known as "the Troubles."