The evening of 23 November 2023 in Dublin saw a mixture of racist protest fuelled by the far right and “riots” by marginalised youth taking what they could from stores, for which they will be punished. The alarm at the potent combination of populist rage and popular resentment was palpable (I arrived on Friday afternoon and heard accounts of what had gone on), and that Saturday’s Palestine solidarity march (which I had planned to attend) was postponed for a week.
On the Sunday evening this year’s Booker Prize was announced, Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song (Oneworld, 2023). Some enthusiasts for the book are treating it as prophecy, and it does trace a downward spiral into chaos that engulfs the south of Ireland after the election of a “National Alliance Party”.
Austerity and reaction
There has been plenty of speculation in Ireland and abroad about how Lynch touches nerves about austerity and reaction, and warnings about plot spoilers now are hardly necessary. You know what is coming before you open the book.
The grim narrative draws you in and down, hopeless and demoralised, searching for a moral pathway out. You know deep in your guts, as does the family that is the focus of the book, that there is no exit, this is endgame.
It is hopeless, for example, for the poor husband Larry, who disappears early on after interrogation by the Garda National Services Bureau, to say that “I’m merely just doing my job as a trade unionist, exercising my right under the constitution.” The emergency powers implemented by the New Alliance Party are just the beginning, sucking elements of the state apparatus and many a neighbour into flag-waving hatred of subversives and, by hints and then disappearances, of outsiders.
You are drawn into the book so fast because it is well written – I’ll give Lynch that – and there are very nice turns of phrase. The main character, Eilish, left to care for her three children, mourns the loss of her husband and refuses to accept that he is dead: “Somewhere in the dark of her body a candle is burning for him but when she seeks the candle to light out past her body she meets only darkness”.
However, there is nothing else nice about the book, and as community bonds are torn apart we also have dispiriting descriptions of the decline into dementia of the dad, Simon. This is, perhaps, meant as a metaphor, a disintegration of one self that parallels the disintegration of the body politic. An extended family abroad desperately attempts to reach in and pull the wretched victims of state violence out of Ireland, out and across to Canada, but their attempts, we suspect, will be to no avail. It is too late.
In fact, and this is the deepest problem of the book, if there is a message, whatever might be done is now too late, and one family suffers as things go from bad to worse. There are competing forces, of the government and then of the “rebels,” but it is not clear that the rebels are much better than those who now run the state, and as the violence intensifies we watch the family suffer at the hands of those who claim to bring liberation.
The restoration of order is a problem either way it comes, from either direction. We are as powerless to make sense of what is happening as Eilish is to resist: “What she sees before her is an idea of order coming undone, the world slewing into a dark and foreign sea.”
What there is of resistance is ambiguous, and we are left at sea – you will find out what horror that reference to the sea means when you get to the end of the book – unable even to think about what might be possible as a happy ending.
There is a descent into what one character refers to as the “hellmouth,” and as Dublin turns into Gaza – with the bombing of hospitals just one of the echoes in the book – we are also faced with what is perhaps one of the few possible progressive aspects of the narrative; the family are turned into refugees, and what there is of racism should surely be dissolved as we realise how quickly and easy it is for those we care for to become objects, objects of pity, our pity.
This is, apart from some little glimmers of humanity as people reach out for each other, a book that disparages collective action, that blurs acts of protest as potential acts of power. It is almost as miserable and reactionary, if that is possible, as the events it describes. As one of the characters puts it, “I don’t see how free will is possible when you are caught up within such a monstrosity”.
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