Monday, 11 October 2010

Noli me tangere - how Anne Enright sees it

From New York Times interview







Anne Enright's Booker-winning novel The Gathering (2007) fell into my hands last Wednesday, and since then I've been wondering about her talent, the cruel precision with words. Now since the 1990s, when Irish writing was my full time business, I have taken my distance, and cannot really remember if I read her early stuff back then. Something in her style reminds me of the Irish radical feminists I met in the flesh in the early 90s - there is a passionately angry subtext, dealing with women's rights to contraception and divorce, and the so-called Catholic family values.

The ingredients of the novel are arch-Irish: the Hegarthy clan is burying an adult son who has committed suicide, and old memories of sexual abuse committed by someone close to the family pop up. The protagonist has given birth to only two daughters, and is becoming severely alienated from her husband. She sleeps during daytime when the family is out, and in the nights takes weird pleasure in driving around Dublin, emptying a bottle of wine in the car as she moves around the eerie "hoods". One would not expect that it would be possible to win a Booker with such a simple tale. But in Enright's case it's the alchemy of words, the strange constellations, that count more than the actual storyline.

The novel reminds me a lot of the two postcolonial writers with whom I am most attached to, Jamaica Kincaid and Sara Suleri (Goodyear). All three women engage in remembering the dead in a laconic, matter-of-fact, almost violently detailed way. The way the protagonist Veronica remembers grandmother's marital bed, her naked groin, may sound disgusting to some. Enright writes obsessively about the triangular drama between Veronica's grandmother, her grandfather and their landlord, who treated the tenants as his property. There is very little Irish history embedded in the story, although it stretches back to 1925, the early years of the Free State. The characters seem oddly devoid of political passions. Or, Enright has no interest in taking the role of the history teacher. The reader has to dig the politics from underneath many layers.

Enright uses the Biblical phrase from Jesus, "Noli me tangere" (Don't touch me), in the contemporary context to get into the core of the problems of a dysfunctional family. These guys are truly avoiding getting too close to one another. The Catholic kids have been taught the phrase as "Nolly May." In the wake and the funeral, Veronica and her siblings are all trying to get together without really meeting one another; drinking becomes one way of protecting oneself from too extreme emotions. In Finland, we have a special word "suojakännit" (protection drunkenness) to describe this tendency. The Hegarthy clan never drinks together, but everyone hides their own bottles and glasses during family meetings. How familiar reading this makes to us Finns! Also in this country the most appropriate place for the bottle has been under the table, close to the table leg. True "closet drunks" (kaappijuopot), on the other hand, hide the drink on the kitchen sink like in Enright's novel.

The Gathering needs to be read several times, it is not one of those books one devours in one sitting. What I loved most about it was the mixing of the philosophical and the everyday, like in the passage where Veronica loiters at Gatwick Airport, where she has stranded alone without her family, but is gathering the courage to return to them:

"And I think we make for peculiar refugees, running from our own blood or towards our own blood; pulsing back and forth along ghostly veins that wrap the world in a skein of blood. This is what I am thinking, as I stand in the queue in the Gatwick Village branch of Accessorize with my two pairs of flipflops, that sport at the plastic cleft a silk orchid for Emily, and for Rebecca a peony rose. I am thinking about the world wrapped in blood, as a ball of string is wrapped in its own string." (p. 258)

With this passage in mind, I am already looking forward to reading her non-fiction book on motherhood, Making Babies. Probably not a pink and pale blue-hued celebration. 

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