Country by Michael Hughes: a hard, rigorous and necessary book
Homer’s Iliad is the baseplate for this 1990s novel set in the Irish borderlands
Michael Hughes: mixes Border idiom with Greek formalism
The naming grates at first. The south Armagh sniper remade as Achilles, and Achilles renamed as Achill an IRA man from the western island. But the namings become a motif through Michael Hughes’ Country, people and places stepping in and out of their names like late Paul Muldoon, self-conscious, enigmatic. The army base Fitzwilliam is nicknamed Illiam, Helen of Troy becomes Nellie. There are bold strokes in this novel but they are thought through. There’s to be no shrinking. With Homer’s Illiad as the baseplate for this 1990s novel, Hughes reaches deep into the country and grasps something furious, elemental and dark.
There’s the language to consider. The register is coarse, furious. Hughes has an ear for his own tongue, brings into it a gnawed-at vernacular of fear and savagery. It needs to be tonally on the money and it is. But underneath it and through it you hear Homer’s cadences, the long lines of chant in dactylic hexameter. He mixes Border idiom with Greek formalism. “Of them two things only one came true.” You could take the linguistic point that the local cadences reflect and refer back to older grammers. Hughes knows his place and people. Nellie is drawn into the covert web by accidental pregnancy, the Brits help her out. The structured descent into the servitude of informing, the soul measured out and undone, is chilling and authentic.
The context is the early 1990s, the move towards ceasefire. A Border unit are determined to undo the settlement, not knowing that they are being set up. There are echoes of Loughgall and Clonoe. The resonances of the Trojan war brought to bear on the frontier country. Women and men are deceitful and manipulative. The sex is brutish and brutishly rendered. The text drips with blood and invective. There is a fearsome capacity for violence. You think of Dante’s Ugolino latched on to the back of Ruggieri’s head, chewing at it like a dog. The old names drift through the text, those with graves and those without. Hughes is knowing in the matter of inner and outer landscape. NME is here, hippie staging post, Fresh Garbage. Drugs are taken. Robert Nairac is there but so is Sinéad O’Connor.
A dirty war
You don’t have to be an expert in the matter of the connection to Homer. You can take it that the execution is clever and faithful to the Illiad. Each sequence has its exact counterpoint in Homer’s text. Hughes isn’t trying to pull off a literary stunt. It is as intellectual and comparative ballast that the crossover succeeds. How to extract what happened in Ireland in the 20th century from the mire of assumption, propaganda and revision. The Homeric grants epic despair to the sequence of brutality in the recent past. The south Armagh episodes point out that behind the Homeric grandeur lies the foulness of war, ordure tossed into the text as one of the IRA men says like the bagged up remnants of a bomb victim tossed into his cell for him to spend a night with. And there’s a historical point to be made that the veneer of classicism is one of the victor’s disguises. A dirty war is a dirty war and the movement towards settlement is as calculating and manipulative as the execution of conflict.
As in the Illiad, those made for war know what their fate will be as their past catches up with them.
Achill as did Achilles, holds back from the fight. The beached ships of the Greeks at Troy becomes the Ships pub where the IRA take counsel. If you didn’t already know that Achilles was goaded into action by the killing of his companion and lover, Patroclus, the outcome is still inevitable and like his Greek counterpoint, Achill knows it.
The late Maurice Hayes was stating a fact when said that literature might be the only way the past can be dealt with, the harm undone in so far as it ever can be. Hayes knew the way the systems worked. The foot-dragging, channels clogged with ill-intention, underfunded judicial systems, evidence destroyed and mislaid. How do you then ensure that nobody is taken at their own view of themselves? It is vital that art escapes fixed positions when no one else has any interest in doing so. There are ways of seeing that have worn deep grooves and those perceptions need to be altered. Art becomes a necessity and a responsibilty.
The Iliad questions whether the nobility of struggle, of perceived honour, is worth the price that has to be paid. Hector’s mutilated body dragged behind Achille’s chariot, the carcass of British soldier Henry tied to the tow bar of Achill’s car and dragged down a border road.
Max Hastings writing in the Washington Post recently warned about the nostalgia for war from those who will never have to fight it. Those of his countrymen who rhapsodise about Spitfires but who will never have to fly or die in one. Like Maurice Hayes he would know what he was talking about. The Illiad stripped of its lyricism carries an unfading relevance. Hughes’ perception is on the money. This is a hard, rigorous and necessary book which grinds out its beauty as the song cycles of empire and resistance fall silent, choked in their own blood.
Eoin McNamee’s new novel the Vogue will be published by Faber and Faber in November