Hard men and hard truths in modern Belfast

Sat, Jul 25, 2009, 01:00

IAN SANSOMreviews The Twelveby Stuart Neville, Harvill Secker, 328pp. £12.99

PRIMO LEVI famously hated The Iliad. “I find reading The Iliadalmost intolerable: this orgy of battles, wounds and corpses, this stupid endless war, the childish anger of Achilles.” He preferred The Odyssey. He had his reasons.

There are readers who will have good reason to find Stuart Neville’s debut novel, The Twelve,intolerable. In the book, Neville portrays a hero – or at least a protagonist – who, like Achilles, finds himself at the very outposts and extremities of human experience. During the course of the book, victims become perpetrators, perpetrators become victims, until in the end there is nothing but murk.

Gerry Fegan is Neville’s hero. During the Troubles, Fegan murdered five soldiers, a policeman, two Loyalists, and four civilians – which makes 12. Now, in modern-day Belfast, after his release from the Maze, he finds himself with a comfortable and spurious job as a “community” worker, and no friends, no family, and a drink problem. “They called people like him political prisoners. Not murderers, or thieves, not extortionists or blackmailers. Not criminals of any kind, just victims of circumstance.”

Gerry’s circumstances have come back to haunt him: for years the ghosts of those he murdered have been following him, taunting him, demanding vengeance. Finally, in The Twelve, he cracks. By killing those who assisted him in his gruesome murders, he believes he will find release from the ghosts.

So Gerry embarks – vigilante-style – on a killing spree, seeking out his former accomplices. With its chorus of ghosts, its gore, and its endless complications, The Twelveis basically a revenge tragedy in the Elizabethan mode, scripted by Quentin Tarantino and produced by the makers of The Bourne Identity. The hero in a revenge tragedy, of course, is also a monster, and Neville’s hero is possessed of virtues that are almost entirely negative, his motives and decisions thoroughly dubious.

The book consists of a series of portraits of miserable, blood-soaked men, battling it out to the death. Some of the portraits are paint-by-numbers simple: Michael McKenna and Paul McGinty, for example, are terrorists turned politicians, with whitened teeth and smart suits. Readers will draw the inference. But the characters that Neville really relishes are the hard men, the psychopaths, and the has-beens – Fegan, double agent Davy Campbell, torturer Vince Caffola, and archetypal gangster-Republican Bull O’Kane, who, in a Freudian twist on the tragedy, becomes the father figure who must be overcome.

The novel is by no means perfect – there is perhaps a funeral too many, and too much hopping in and out of cars, too many mobile phone tip-offs, a sequel-indicating ending. But it possesses a profound and wider significance. There has, in recent years, been an upsurge of powerful crime and thriller writing set in – or by authors based in – Northern Ireland. One thinks most readily of Brian McGilloway and Eoin McNamee. These are novelists and novels possessed not only of a singularity of voice but also of a subject, and a velocity.

It may simply be that there is a feeling that in Northern Ireland those who have triumphed, those who now have power, are nothing but despoilers who deserve to be humiliated and tormented. Or it may be that there is a generation of writers uniquely, tragically equipped to be able to think through complex issues of justice and mercy. Whichever: we are witnessing a clearing out of foul, Stygian stables. In Hamlet– the revenge tragedian’s revenge tragedy – the Ghost is “Doomed for a certain time to walk the night/ And for the day confined to fast in fires,/ Till the foul crimes done in days of nature/ Are burnt and purged away”. The Twelveis an important part of the purging.

Ian Sansom teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. He is the author of the Mobile Library series of novels