Kafka as Gaeilge

As part of Imram Irish Language Literature Festival, Daithí Ó Muirí reimagines Kafka’s stories with live music and shadow puppets

Dáithí Ó Muirí with guitarist Enda Reilly, and dancers Feargus Ó Conchuir and Aoife McAtamney

Dáithí Ó Muirí with guitarist Enda Reilly, and dancers Feargus Ó Conchuir and Aoife McAtamney

 

“An album from another world... cold and melancholy but permeated by cracked beauty throughout” – so one fan described Mogwai’s album come on die young. The description could equally apply to Daithí Ó Muirí’s magical fictions. His short story collections are themed – hence we have story cycles on war; graveyards; music; and, most recently, literature or story-telling itself.

Ceolta (Musics) takes us on a voyage into an utterly bizarre world that is in part the dark shadow of a very real hi-tech globalised world, and in part a spectral dreamworld not unlike an saol eile – the otherworld of Gaelic storytelling.

In Cóilín an tSaibhreas, protagonist Cóilín escapes his disintegrating mental and physical reality through his obsession with the Mogwai song ex-cowboy. Ó Muirí’s story builds and swells like the song’s riffs, until Cóilín is released from his nightmares of dead generations emerging from the sea, and escapes from a psychopathic neighbour who drives a tank through his house. Through music he triumphs over “uaigneas, brón” (loneliness, sorrow), reaching a place where he swims in the air (“ag snámh san aer”).

Venus is built around the track of the same name from John Coltrane’s album Interstellar Space – this free-jazz interplay between sax and drums explores a conflict between melody and chaos. Around the piece, Ó Muirí weaves a story about a bunch of music buffs in a café that touches on love, friendship, and the nature of attraction.

Ó Muirí loves nonsense – that’s to say that his stories create a world that makes no normal sense. People can fly; a mother and daughter see visions of an ice castle on an Indian mountain, and discover a holy well that seems to vanish into thin air. What permeates these tales is the surreal logic of dreams. But within his alienated landscapes, there exist potent reminders of the world we know. In the background televisions pump out the news of a tireless vaguely defined conflict that echoes the “war on terror”. Immigrants flee from distant hardship, poverty, famine, violence (“éalú ón gcruatan thall, bochtanas, gorta, foréigean”)

Ceolta is as much about sound as it is about music – it captures street noises, plates clattering in a café, the clink of glasses in a bar, the chitter-chatter of conversation.

His deceptively relaxed prose often lulls the reader into a false sense of security. In Cogaí (Wars), he describes territories that are both strange and strangely familiar. In Cogadh (War), a community is compelled by rumours of imminent war to build a protective wall around themselves – and the story is a warning of the dangers of the siege mentality. In Baile na gCoillteán (The Town of Eunuchs), a journalist journeys to a nameless war-ravaged African country, in search of a town where all the men have been castrated by their enemy. This story’s terrifying finale echoes JG Ballard in its embrace of darkness. Even more horrifying is Blaosc (Skull), a nightmarish voyage through a landscape straight from Hieronymus Bosch.

Ó Muirí further extends his bizarre sensibility in Uaigheanna (Graves). Centred on a village graveyard, the title story comprises of seven inter-linked narratives focusing on seven different graves. Here are night-watchmen, murderers, suicides, gunrunners and lynch mobs – bound together by eccentric rituals that are as blackly humorous as they are bizarre.

His latest book, Litríochtaí, comprises a series of extremely short stories – flash fictions, if you like – that interrogate the meaning of the process of reading and writing. In Mise, Ise agus Eisean (Me, Her and Him) is a wry parable on writer’s block. At times the writer-narrator is possessed of spirits, angels who drive his work; at other times he is driven to write, but finds himself as a lonely soul waiting for a bus that never comes, wondering if he has just missed it. There are passages in the story that nod to Irish writers such as Tomás Ó Criomhthain (“tine curtha sa teallach agus an teas lárnach air agam, mé suite go ciúin, peann agus páipéar romham, pota caife...gach rud leagtha amach agam”) and Seosamh MacGrianna (“is é an fhirinne nach bhfuil sé de mhisneach agam...rud ar bith eile a scríobh”).

It came as no surprise to me that Ó Muirí loves Kafka – and I was delighted to discover that he has translated a series of Kafka stories, working from the original German. Ó Muirí’s work often has a similar spectral tone and love of the absurd. Ó Muirí feels Kafka is often mis-read, his black humour misunderstood as despair.

In Scáthanna ó Phrág (Shadows from Prague) at this year’s Imram Irish Language Literature Festival, he’ll read his versions of four Kafka stories to live music from composer and multi-instrumentalist Seán Mac Erlaine and shadow puppets and live drawing by Niamh Lawlor of Púca Puppets.
Scáthanna ó Phrág (Shadows from Prague) will be staged in Powerscourt Theatre, South William Street, Dublin at 8pm on Wednesday, October 18th. imram.ie Daithí Ó Muiri is published by Cló Iar-Chonnacht: cic.ie

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