Frank McGuinness: master of a novel form
A substantial and intriguing book to contemplate and to remember
Set in small-town Donegal in the 1950s, Arimathea features an Italian hired to paint the Stations of the Cross in the local church
When I was a child the word “Arimathea” made quite an impression, its cadence making it pleasing to repeat aloud. I knew the story of the rich man, Joseph, who gave his tomb for the crucified Christ’s resting place – the only reason most Christians have heard of Arimathea. Otherwise it remains a place unknown to us. In Frank McGuinness’s new novel the mysterious allure of Arimathea surfaces again, with the reappearance, after several years, of the Brandon imprint by the O’Brien Press.
This book is a new beginning for the author, a first novel from a playwright who has published in other genres, most notably poetry. It appears on the heels of Testament, the novelist Colm Tóibín’s move in the opposite direction first to create a biblical work for theatre, set some years after the death of Christ, and then to rework the material into a novel. In another authorial twist, McGuinness’s new play at the Abbey Theatre, The Hanging Gardens, centres on the final illness of a writer who is a novelist.
McGuinness’s novel is not a biblical retelling, set as it is in 1950s Donegal. Rather the author mines narrative conventions, introducing a stranger as catalyst into an enclosed world, then using multiple narrators to relate the tale that ensues. The latter device is often credited, in modern literature, to William Faulkner, who used it to consummate effect in The Sound and the Fury. Writers often opt for multiple narrators when they want to probe moral issues in which human behaviour is occluded by doubt, confusion and fear.
McGuinness’s talent as dramatist is suited to such narrative technique. Chapters in different voices are not unlike stage monologues, and each of McGuinness’s is pitched to best display wildly divergent sensibilities and motives, and to enable characters to divest themselves of the secrets that, in the end, will bind them all.
Sense of perspective
The story is first told from the perspective of Euni, the pubescent daughter of the lodging house to which a recently arrived Italian painter, Gianni Cuma, has come. He is there at the behest of the parish priest, Fr O’Hagen, to paint the Stations of the Cross in the local church. The painter, with his brown skin and artistic habits that defy expectations in small-town Donegal, is a mystery to the girl.
Euni is somewhat cowed but not without a degree of boldness and insight in the face of this intruder and his strange ways. Nor does Gianni kowtow to local expectations of decorum, leaving a trail of paint-stained clothes at the end of each week for his landlady, and taking early and solitary woodland walks.
The chapters that follow are related in turn by each of Euni’s parents: her mother, Margaret, who is uneasily expecting her fourth child; and her father, Malachy, a blacksmith slowly becoming redundant in the town. More chapters are given over to Fr O’Hagen, prime mover in the plot; the local vicar, Columba Sewell, and his beautiful niece Martha. Finally, we read Gianni’s own story. It is a baroque family tale tinged with myth and filled with period intrigue and timeless tragedy.
With each chapter McGuinness’s storytellers add a subtle layer of complexity, laced with artistic and religious allusion, but also with sexual secrets. Gianni, nicknamed Giotto, was once the favoured youngest son of a large family, and at first he was encouraged to become an artist. Later the child is mistakenly credited with miraculous power, and spends his life being either venerated or scorned, with little comfort in between. Gianni’s unearthly physical beauty makes him the object of desire of both men and women, yet he has remained peculiarly alone.
The book’s vocal register is distinctive and alive, and although most of the writing is unadorned, it can be arresting. When the celibate Columba Sewell remembers his ineffectual elder brother who depleted the family fortune, he reflects: “Sadly, poor old Charlie was not familiar with the chosen destiny of many a Regency or Victorian hero. Perhaps it was his tragedy that he shunned the three-volume novel, preferring in its stead the penny dreadful of his own pathetic life.”
And, of a failed Protestant scheme to bring work to the town, he submits that “Fate was waiting with a razor in its fist for the milk-white throat of all our hopes.”
The penultimate segment of Arimathea consists of a serial poem in 14 parts describing the Stations of the Cross. Although each poem can stand alone, they are more a lyric interlude than an essential part of the novel.
In the final section McGuinness draws together elements embedded throughout the text, and his Donegal becomes a place where the living and the dead, the human and the animal, reality and the dream world, the mundane and the supernatural come together. This is a distinctively Irish book, and one in which echoes of Joyce vie with those of Máirtín Ó Cadhain.
It is always brave for an established writer to undertake a new form. McGuinness the playwright has shown with Arimathea that he is also a novelist, and he has given us a substantial and intriguing book to contemplate and to remember.