Still plenty of water in the well of the Troubles era for writers to draw on

Anna Burns should pay no more heed to politically motivated criticisms than Heaney or McGahern

Anna Burns  following the announcement of her winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for her novel ‘Milkman’ this week.  Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/Epa

Anna Burns following the announcement of her winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for her novel ‘Milkman’ this week. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/Epa

 

Writer and former republican prisoner Danny Morrison was quick during the week to congratulate Anna Burns on winning the Booker Prize for her novel Milkman, set during the Troubles in Belfast. He added that he was looking forward to reading it, though he might be somewhat wary given his excoriation of Burn’s debut novel No Bones, which he regarded as a mess, while adding “Politically, I would be concerned that a southern Irish or English audience would read this novel believing the fictional context to be a somewhat faithful representation of reality, even if the story is completely blown by its surrealist affectations”.

Also politically, I presume, he did find some of No Bones palatable and evocative, including the fate of two young men seeking to get back to a safely nationalist area of Belfast, only for one of them to be caught by a Loyalist murder gang. Morrison finished his 2007 review by suggesting “with a bit more discipline, or a bit more guidance, Anna Burns will write a far superior novel.”

I don’t know whether Morrison will approve of Milkman, given what it suggests about the operation and impact of both state and paramilitary violence and the “psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification” of the 1970s in north Belfast. But what is important is the narrator’s voice and consciousness, and what Burns calls “the feeling reality, rather than necessarily what happened”. It does not matter whether the book does justice to the politics and militarism of the era according to those who were part of that; it is not a history and writers of fiction have obligations only to their sentences, so Burns need lose no sleep over those whose politics pervades their critical reaction.

Seamus Heaney

Morrison will be well aware of the reaction of poet Séamus Heaney to the entreaties of an animated republican: in Heaney’s poem The Flight Path, an IRA sympathiser hears his demands for political commitment rejected:

“When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write Something for us? If I do write something, Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.”

Morrison will be well aware because the poem is based on an encounter between him and Heaney, when Morrison approached the poet on a train seeking support for those who were involved in the Blanket protests at the Maze prison and the women prisoners in Armagh. Heaney later acknowledged that he made the speaker appear “a little more aggressive than he was at the time” and their memories of the encounter don’t chime exactly, but the issue of artistic independence remains at the core of the story, regardless of what words were used.

John McGahern

Ten years later, novelist John McGahern was livid at the accusation by an English critic at the Booker Prize ceremony who suggested his 1990 masterpiece Amongst Women glorified the IRA. McGahern’s response was trenchant: “Amongst Women glorifies nothing but life itself, and fairly humble life. All its violence is internalised within a family, is not public or political; but is not, therefore, a lesser evil. If the novel suggests anything, it is how difficult it is for people, especially women who until very recently had no real power at all in our society, to try to create some space to live and love in the shadow of violence.”

Perhaps some similar conclusions could be reached about Milkman; Burns has pointed to the neglect of gendered violence as it got drowned out by “the political problems, where huge things, physical noisy things” happened “on a daily basis, on an hourly basis”. What got lost were the situations faced by many women, or as is depicted in Milkman, the plight of an 18-year-old girl who buries herself in books and has no interest in the Troubles only to find herself in a situation where “Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me”.

Peace came slowly

Burns’s novel is a reminder that there is still plenty of water in the well of the Troubles era that writers can draw on. There was a sense, as the peace came slowly to the North, that a new, less Troubles-focused writing could dominate Northern Irish fiction, but the work of Burns centres on a place “immersed long-term on the physical and energetic planes in the dark mental energies; conditioned too, through years of personal and communal suffering, personal and communal history, to be overladen with heaviness and grief and fear and anger”.

That might make some uncomfortable and it might jar with the constant reminder of the need to move on; maybe others will see it as a very necessary coming to terms with the past and a timely engagement with the reality of violence against women. Whatever way it is read, Burns is under no obligation to be anything except the writer she is.

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