Novel about betraying republican wins award

Wed, Nov 2, 2011, 00:00

A NOVEL inspired by the story of Denis Donaldson, the senior republican and British agent who was murdered in 2006, has won one of France’s most prestigious literary awards.

Return to Killybegs, written by the journalist Sorj Chalandon who became a friend of Donaldson’s while working for the newspaper Libérationin Belfast, comfortably won the Académie Française prize by 13 votes out of 20. The book is also on the shortlist for the Prix Goncourt, which will be awarded today.

“I’m very happy, because it’s an award for language. It’s a prize for words,” said Chalandon yesterday. “I’m deeply touched by it.”

Return to Killybegsis Chalandon’s second book inspired by the Donaldson story.

My Traitor, published in English by Lilliput Press last June, centred on Antoine, an idealistic young violin-maker who befriends a senior IRA man and informer, Tyrone Meehan. Whereas My Traitorwas told from the perspective of the betrayed, the new work makes Meehan the narrator of his own story, allowing the reader to “share his lies, his solitude, his distress”.

The author says that while he and Donaldson have little in common with the book’s characters, the idea for an imaginative work on the experience of betrayal sprang from his shock and hurt at discovering that someone he knew well had led a double existence.

“It’s terrible to hear that one of your friends – a man you knew for years and years, the man who explained so much to you about Ireland and his struggle – was a traitor in his community,” Chalandon remarked. “I never said to myself, I want to write a novel about Denis, but I was so shocked, so disappointed, it was so painful. I said to myself, I will take this and write a novel about what it means to be betrayed by someone close to you.”

The revelation that Donaldson had worked as a British agent caused shock within republicanism, as the veteran figure was close to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.

Nobody has ever been charged with his murder.

Awarding the prize to Return to Killybegs, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, secretary of the Académie Française, said the judging panel “liked everything about this book” and praised the author’s “wonderful” use of language.

Chalandon, born in Tunisia in 1952, worked for Libérationfor 34 years before moving to Le Canard Enchainé, the satirical-investigative newspaper, in 2007.

He covered numerous conflicts, but fell in love with Ireland and has written about how he grew to sympathise with the republican cause. Return to Killybegsis his fifth novel – and his final literary word on Ireland.

“I never thought of writing a book about Ireland. For me, literature was a means of washing myself of news, of talking about something else,” he said yesterday.

“I did it because I wanted to close the tomb – not the tomb of a man, but of a friendship, an illusion, a sense of anger. I’ll never write another word about Ireland. “These were accidental books. Now it’s finished. The tomb is closed. I’ve thrown some flowers over it. It’s done.”