I had never heard of Benedict Kiely (1919 – 2007) until a few months ago, when I saw that Methuen have kept a couple of his novels in print: Nothing Happens in Carmincross and The Captain with the Whiskers. Methuen don’t publish much fiction these days (see postscript), and one of their recent projects was bringing Richard Yates back into print in the UK, so I took this as a good omen and bought Nothing Happens in Carmincross after reading the first few pages. Then I saw his novella, Proxopera, in a charity shop a few weeks ago, with critics on the cover comparing him to Balzac, Conrad and Gogol. At 50p, it was worth a bet.
Proxopera is subtitled A Tale of Modern Ireland (and dedicated ‘to the memory of the Innocent Dead’), and was first published in 1977, at the height of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (an elastic term: pretty much any year from the 1970s and 80s has been described as ‘at the height of the Troubles’). Anthony Burgess called it “nearly flawless as a piece of literature” and William J Kennedy “a small masterpiece.” Surprisingly, Proxopera does not disappoint.
The book has the connection to the land and tradition of storytelling which we might expect in an Irish tale. The central character, Binchy, has retired to his homeland of County Tyrone, where he remembers from his childhood “the spring that came on an iron spout out of the naked rock.”
That, for him, had been the well at the world’s end mentioned in the old stories. No water had ever tasted like that water. One of the best meals he had ever eaten had been eaten there: raw turnips taken from a neighbouring field, cleaned in the spring and sliced, washed down by the clear ice-cold water.
But it is the still water of the lake fed by the spring which becomes the central symbol in the story.
Below, in a hollow of quaking bog was a small lake, surrounded by sallies and bog-birch, in which demented old ladies and others were continually drowning themselves. There was an almost vocal sadness about the place.
The lake recurs, as source of and solution to tragedy. Storytelling is prominent also in the sense that Proxopera is driven by its plot, from which it derives its tricksy title. Binchy (‘Binchy One’ to distinguish him from his son) and his family are invaded by IRA men who hold his family hostage and demand that he drives a bomb in a milk churn to the home of a judge in the town. (“Judge Flynn is one of the best men in the North.” “The more reason he shouldn’t be where he is. He lends credit to the system.” “So you kill a man more readily because he’s a good man?”)
Not even the Mafia thought of the proxy bomb, operation proxy, proxopera for gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering the neighbours.
Binchy knows two of the three republicans through their balaclavas: a handy way for Kiely to underline that violence cleaves apart existing communities, where “nowadays people die for Ireland in the oddest ways,” and ideologies pit against one another people who have more in common with each other than they do with their respective allies. Kiely’s anger is undisguised, even though he does humanise the terrorists, if only collectively and backhandedly (“And the odd thing, Mr Binchy, is that a lot of these fellows … if left alone wouldn’t hurt a cat or a child. But get a few of them together and give them what they think is a leader or an ideal and they’d destroy Asia and themselves and their nearest and dearest”). When one of them hisses about “fighting the Brits”, the response seems to sum up Kiely’s view:
Fight the Brits, says Binchy Two, to the last Catholic shop in the village of Belleek or the town of Strabane. Man, you love the Brits, you couldn’t exist without them. The nickname is affectionate. They give you the chance to be Irish heroes. They give you targets you can easily see.
The subject and plot loosely recalls Brian Moore’s Booker-shortlisted novel Lies of Silence, though Proxopera predates that book by 13 years. Kiely’s story is more lyrical than Moore’s, the setting rural rather than urban, and its proximity to the outset of the Troubles gives it a hard edge which the beauty of the writing does not soften. It is tense and thrilling, but rich and complex in its understanding of a man’s relationship with his landscape, and of men’s relationship with their homeland. It is a book which fills me with pleasure at the potential riches in Kiely’s books I’ve yet to read, and despair that such a fine literary creation is out of print (though it is available in Kiely’s Collected Stories. Which is also out of print).
Postscript: The edition of Proxopera which I read was published in the Methuen Modern Fiction imprint in 1988. I was fascinated to see the range of authors listed at the back, ‘also available from Methuen’. As well as Richard Yates (two decades ago, Revolutionary Road would have cost you £4.50), there are abandoned Booker winners (Stanley Middleton), modern Europeans (Handke, Lenz, Tournier), British writers who used to be big names (Christopher Isherwood), and even the odd South American. Am I suffering from false nostalgia, or is it unlikely that such a wide range of writers would be published by a mainstream house today?