In with The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasalinna from Peter Owen Books came another enticingly unusual read, Exile by Padraic O'Conaire, translated from Irish by Gearailt Mac Eoin.
The cover immediately reminded me of Eleanor Thom's The Tin Kin (which incidentally has deservedly made the shortlist of the Guardian's Not the Booker ) and my expectations of gipsy horse rustling slightly subverted with the discovery that the main man in this novel quickly gets run over by a car and loses both an arm, a leg and his good looks in the process, perhaps horse riding might be out of the equation. But I had made other interestingly prejudicial assumptions and those have since been exposed in my post-novel explorations.
Exile recounts the life of this crippled and lonely Irishman exiled from his homeland in London with £250 compensation in his pocket from the accident and suddenly more fair-weather friends than he had dreamed possible.
Once the money has drizzled away leaving just the empty bottles as a reminder, Michael hits the depths of despair wandering from one down and out experience to another, amongst other things as a circus freak, engaged to another circus freak, the Fat Lady. Michael's eventual demise eerily foreshadowing Padraic O'Conaire's, can he possibly have imagined that his own would be so similar.
I knew nothing about O'Conaire but feeling that Team Ulysses affinity with Irish literature and a sense of exile that I'm starting to find therin, I was intrigued to know more.
Born in Galway in 1882 and orphaned at the age of eight, Padriac O'Conaire appears to have fallen on his feet with adoption by a well-to-do uncle who gave him an education he was unlikely to have received otherwise, culminating in attendance at Blackrock College in Dublin. Emigrating to London in 1889 and securing a job with the Board of Education must have offered sufficient stability because marriage and children followed.
For reasons I haven't been able to discover O'Conaire deserted his family and returned to Ireland in 1914, eventually dying alone and destitute in Dublin in 1928. Apart from the clothes he stood up in, in his possession just a pipe, a piece of tobacco, an apple and a pocket knife.
Yet Padraic O'Conaire left a legacy of 26 books, 473 stories, 237 essays and 6 plays and I'll wager I'm not the only one who may not have heard of him. Written in Irish and it would seem very little as yet translated into English so lets hope Gearailt Mac Eoin, who translated Exile, is lining up some more.
This delightfully evocative statue to Padraic O'Conaire's memory can be found in Eyre Square in Galway.
I've read elsewhere of O'Conaire's skill in telling the simple story to demonstrate great and universal truths and it was easy to get a real sense of that as I read Exile and indulged in some lengthy after-book thinking . Unusual, slightly ambiguous and eccentric, yet compelling reading for all that and apparently a fine example of the first modernist novel to emerge from Ireland.
There is a helpful essay by Angela Bourke on Padraic O'Conaire here which thankfully explained much that I hadn't been aware of as I read, but which made sense later. Revealing a great deal about the plight of the Irishman abroad in the early twentieth century and this is where those early and slightly judgmental assumptions of mine were neatly exposed. Often doing the most dangerous jobs, stigmatised by country of origin, language, accent and prey to discrimination and assumptions of inferiority, but the Irish also representative of an unspoken danger because of that difference.
In creating a character as 'different' as Michael, Padraic O'Conaire covers all those great and universal truths and more, adding in the prejudices and stigma of physical disability and facial disfigurement which become an even greater burden, and an added complication as initial displays of sympathy are seemingly rejected and shunned as unwanted pity by Michael.
There is much more here that I've missed I feel sure, so a little book of which I knew nothing has provided one of those unique reading moments, plenty to discover for the first time, more to be revealed on a second read and I wonder where all Padraic O'Conair's writing is?
Who holds the archives and when and how can we read more?
But that sets us up nicely for some more of the Irish tomorrow as Team Ulysses reach Camp Three.