By Lucas Spiro
This fine collection of short fiction reinforces Richard Power’s reputation as a master storyteller.
The Rebels and Other Short Fiction by Richard Power. Edited and with an Introduction by James MacKillop. Syracuse University Press, 232 pages, $24.95.
A remarkable number of Irish writers were bureaucrats. This doesn’t mean that Irish letters has been completed by policy or committee, or that these writers were sincere nationalists who subjugated their craft and form to the strictures of propaganda. Over the years, many Irish writers have anxiously worked against or within well-defined official parameters. Still, living as an artist within the procedural politics of the state was not always easy. Despite being called “the biggest patron of the arts since the Medici” by Richard Power’s wife, the civil service also presents obvious limits, external and internal. It makes sense that most literary writers who held official government positions wrote under pseudonyms; whether as protection from professional backlash, or to distance their work from the miasma of the official language of the state.
Richard Power/Risteárd de Paor is not as well-known as some of his contemporaries, partly because he died (in 1970) just as his writing career took off. He also had an ambivalent relationship to his role as writer-civil servant. Power worked in the Department of Local Governments (only a few years after Brian O’Nolan/Brian Ó Nualláin aka Flann O’Brien aka Myles na gCopaleen held the same post). Power called it “Dickensian,” claiming his job was “writing speeches for the commissioner of sludge.” But he didn’t “altogether regret having to support [himself] in the civil service,” insisting that it kept him “in touch.” A similar ambivalence is found in The Rebels and Other Short Fiction, a new collection of Power’s writing that suggests a skepticism about the work of nation building and the histories on which a nation is built.
The Ireland depicted in Power’s fiction is a narrow-minded nation of shopkeepers, priests, clerks,petite bourgeois merchants, and small landowners, often with an out-sized estimation of themselves and a profound mistrust of others, often drawn along rural/urban, religious, linguistic, and class divisions. This view was opposed to the more generous perspective of his contemporary, fellow civil servant and poet Thomas Kinsella, who found virtues in bureaucratic work: “alertness, openness, cooperation.” Power’s stories portray Ireland as a nation still-born, or “the sow that eats her farrow,” an unfinished idea that seems to vacillate between states of rebellion and acquiescence, a manic caricature of an arrested birth.
The rebels of the title story are a group of school children with an oppressive master who beats them mercilessly, and with pleasure. The master is possibly English, although this isn’t stated. He quotes the poetry of Milton and his bookshelves are stocked with almost nothing but volumes of Dickens; his literary taste reflects Power’s scathing assessment of official power and British hegemony. Each morning, the students are forced to bring a sod of turf for the schoolhouse fire, a cooperative, communal gesture under ordinary circumstances, but clearly exploitative because they are made to dig up and burn their own land for the master’s comfort, much more than their own. The archetype of a cruel colonial power, even if the master is not explicitly English, are crystal clear. He has his teacher’s pet, who cooks and cleans for him; the kid even cuts a fresh switch for the master each time he doles out a beating. There is the Irish would-be hero, Vincent, who attempts to lead a rebellion by refusing to bring his sod of turf after one too many injustices. Initially, the others join him, but after the master beats them they all turn back to fetch the turf. This time, Vincent grabs as many sods as he can hold and throws them at the master when they return. Some of the other children join in the rebellion; the “sods bombarded the master’s face from all directions.” The teacher’s pet attacks Vincent until the narrator finally breaks up the fight. Vincent “stopped, staring at me, as if he didn’t know me. Then he took a look at the shocked faces all around. He began to tremble all over. Suddenly, he turned and walked out the door.”
The children go back to their seats, the rebellion a failure. The narrator, having never thrown his own turf, let it “fall from [his] hand.” “I heard it thump on the floor,” he remembers, “I’m sure of that. In fact, I know I did. But ever since, whenever I look back, I think that I too lifted it and flung it against the face of the master.” This story echoes how failed Irish rebellions have played out in history (there was never a really successful one); the event obviously satirizes the mystique of the Easter Rising. Few people took part in the Easter Rising, and it wasn’t popularly supported. But, retrospectively, it was used as an iconic happening in the Irish mythos, one that helped shape and define the nation’s identity.
“Saving the Bacon” humorously tells the story of an opportunist in a country village. A couple of brothers, Pat and Tom, are given “a contrary pig” as a pet, one they don’t like all that much. Still, the creature gives them a bit of distinction among their cohort. The responsibilities for taking care of the pig — mostly feeding it — are annoying, and they often forget their duties. “However,” the narrator tells us,” “in spite of our forgetfulness, the pig managed to get fat and heavy,” until it stops eating altogether. The pig “grew weaker,” and “could hardly move about the sty.” The brothers decide to “hold a ’25 drive,” a fundraiser with card games and dancing, in order to get rid of the pig, which would be among the winnings. Larry, the man who (apparently) wins the card tournament, comes back for the animal the following day, only to find the pig dead. The boys, feeling guilty, return the man’s entry fee for the ’25 drive and give him the critter for free, now fit only to be fed to Larry’s dogs. Larry sends a ham to the family for Christmas; he bought it with the money he made on the pig. Pat is incredulous, not understanding how Larry could have made money on a dead, sick pig. “… you won’t catch me wasting good meat on the hounds” says Larry, explaining that he “cured it… and sold it to a fellow… in the bacon business. Mad to get it he was.”
Power explores familiar themes of national dysfunction, challenging the notion of a unified Irish identity. He highlights the differences and distinctive perspectives of different parts of Irish society. Standard tropes are treated with irony and sarcasm, wit and humor: neighborliness, republicanism, piety, and hypocrisy. While this fine collection reinforces Power’s reputation as a master storyteller (earned by his 1969 novel The Hungry Grass), his writing sometimes suffers from relying too much on the academic schema and penned-in style he probably learned when attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Still, these domesticating handholds, while irritating, aren’t powerful enough to get in the way when Power has a wild story to tell.
Lucas Spiro is a writer living outside Boston. He studied Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin and his fiction has appeared in the Watermark. Generally, he despairs. Occasionally, he is joyous.