Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty

There was a time when I saw the whole world through Irish eyes, stumbling through my days, all but drunk on the novels,  short stories, plays, and poetry of Joyce, Bowen, Beckett, Trevor, McGahern, Heaney, and Yeats. To crown this passion of mine, my father, as a college graduation gift to me, took me on a literary tour of the Emerald Isle. Starting in barbwired Belfast, which I had long wanted to see, we had worked our way south to Dublin, to Lady Gregory’s Abbey Theatre and to the fabled pubs of Seán O’Casey, Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, and J.P, Donleavy, then southward again to Joyce’s Martello Tower (Introibo ad altare Dei), where the stately, plump Buck Mulligan had stood at the stairhead with his bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed, to see for ourselves the snotgreen, scrotumtightening sea.

From there we'd continued south to Wexford, to Frank O’Connor’s Cork, and to the quaint seaport town of Youghal (where—so we’d been told by a priest at breakfast one morning, in a scene right out of Dubliners—parts of the 1956 movie Moby Dick had been filmed), then on to the wild west coast, to the spectacularly moody Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. From there, taking our time, we’d  worked our way north to Galway and (the very goal of the trip for me) to the rocky Aran Islands, the starkly evocative setting of John Millington Synge’s best-known plays, The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. I knew that the rocky, desolate islands, so vivid to me from my study of Synge’s plays, were also the birthplace of one of Ireland’s best-known writers, Liam O’Flaherty, whose novel, The Informer, I had just finished reading back in Cork.

Set in 1920’s Dublin in the wake of Bloody Sunday, during the Irish War of Independence, The Informer tells the spare, if deeply stirring tale of a down-and-out ex-revolutionary named Gyp Nolan, a hulking brute of a man who, in an act of desperation, informs on a friend and fellow Nationalist for the reward of twenty pounds, a betrayal that costs his friend his life. For the Revolutionary Organization (a militant, republican, vaguely communist faction based loosely on the IRA) there is no crime more heinous than that.

What ensues is an exquisite, at turns excruciatingly measured depiction of the means by which the Organization—that “thing that was full of plans, implacable, reaching out everywhere invisibly, with invisible tentacles like a supernatural monster”—uncovers the informer’s  identity then circles slowly round its prey, a ghastly unraveling which the reader devours with that impotence and fascination with which one watches the destruction of Oedipus at Thebes. As in Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, the central character Lenny of which bears a striking resemblance to O’Flaherty’s gormless hero, one knows from the start that Gyp Nolan is doomed—and dreads it. And still one reads on, propelled by the atmosphere, the tension, the prose, nearly sick with pity for this simple-minded man. 

Liam O’Flaherty (1896-1984), born Liam Ó Flaithearta,grew up in the small village of Gort na gCapall on one of the Aran Islands.  He attended Holy Cross and University College in Dublin before joining the Irish Guards.  While fighting  on the Western Front he suffered shell shock, resulting in two successive nervous breakdowns.  After the war he moved to the United States, where he lived in Hollywood for a time before returning to Dublin where he died at the age of 88.  Best known for his novels, Famine, The Sniper, and The Martyr, as well as for his  wickedly satirical tract, A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland, he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Informer in 1925. 

Peter Adam Nash

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