A little sacrilege can be invaluable, Irish writer Jack Harte discovers after the launch of his latest novel - in Bulgarian
When Jack Harte's Irish publishers refused to publish his second novel, Reflections in a Tar Barrel, deeming it “sacrilegious”, the writer decided to get drunk. Then he did so again – this time with some Bulgarians in one of those taverns where wine is not only plentiful but also aromatic.
Aside from the predictable hangover, the evening had an unexpected bonus: a contract to publish his novel in Bulgarian signed on one of the tavern's serviettes. Don't imagine the copyright transformed him into an overnight millionaire – it was sold for five crates of Melnik wine!
A year later Harte presented Reflections in a Tar Barrel at the Apollonia Art Festival in Sozopol. In this issue, VAGABOND prints an extract from his previous novel, In the wake of the Bagger. It is largely autobiographical and the event it describes is real. Father Joe Mullooly is the man who excavated the San Clemente Church in Rome, and in so doing discovered the grave of St Cyril. So, it's thanks to him that there is a constant stream of Bulgarians to his shrine every year.
Before his novels, Harte published four collections of short stories, established the Irish Writers' Union and the Irish Writers' Centre and worked for years as a teacher and school principal.
Why is the protagonist of Reflections a boy with learning difficulties?
I can't say that Tommy Loftus was an act of bravery on my part. You don't think about such things while writing. For me, he was a challenge. I wanted to show the attitude of the educational authorities to an extraordinary person like him. Having been a teacher myself, I was interested in studying the way the system treats everybody similarly, the way it schematises them. Yet individuals like him just don't fit into the system. And they are exactly the people it's interesting to explore.
Why did you choose this particular ending?
Because there is a lot to reflect on: what sort of existence do we have and what kind of world do we inhabit? For me, it was quite natural to conclude the book with reflections about death, afterlife and the female essence of the world.
Why did you turn the Christian system upside down and put the Virgin Mary on the top of it?
I think we should look at the world with new eyes. Genetic research shows that the first form of life was female and the male form was a derivative. I believe that this changes the way we should view the world around us considerably. The problem with religions is their inflexibility, which prevents them adopting a different outlook. This is exactly what Tommy Loftus does: he views life in a novel way and doubts the viewpoint of religion.
What is the current attitude to religion in Ireland?
People now live a better life. They are more materialistic and less dependent on religion. Some of them are disappointed by it and, like
Tommy Loftus, are asking themselves more and more questions. Pope Benedict XVI's address, in which he denounced the free expression of personal faith, shows that this tendency is growing.
How did you manage to organise a union for such individualists as writers?
Irish writers had no organisation of any kind until 1987, when I decided to give it a try. Nobody believed it was possible because of their interpersonal conflicts. They would say, “If A is in the union, B will never want to be a member.” I told A and B and all the others that everybody had agreed. When we announced the list of members, all the writers turned out to be on it. The Guinness guys supported the event and it became an unforgettable opening night.
Do you drink Guinness or whiskey?
Like most Dubliners, I drink Guinness for nine months of the year. For the three summer months I drink lager.
Handwriting, word processing or typewriting?
Always by hand at first. I always make two drafts before sitting in front of the computer. I hate typing straight onto the word processor; I have the feeling that I'm creating the final version of the text. But when I am ready and finally enter the text on the word processor it's a real pleasure to edit and change it. For a writer, computers are a miracle!
What follows after Reflections?
A new novel, already completed. It's interlaced with many myths and again includes my reflections on the eternal topic of our existence.
What kind of writer are you, a traveller or the indoor type?
I am not a traveller in the exact meaning of the word. I don't travel for the sake of travelling. When I was young I preferred to go to London or Paris, but now I visit places like Bulgaria and I find them very enriching for a writer.
You went to Moscow for the presentation of your first book in Russian?
From Under Gogol's Nose is a collection of short stories written several years ago. I hope Russian readers will like it. They appreciate short stories more in Russia than we do in Ireland.
You are already familiar with Bulgarian food and drink. What do you like most about it?
I am ready to travel all the way from Ireland to Bulgaria to taste Melnik wine and homemade yoghurt! They are the first things I like to have when I return here.
IN THE WAKE OF THE BAGGER*
by Jack Harte
Sunday afternoon trips out to Charlie Rhatigan's to collect the weekly supply of eggs had started as a chore but soon became a treat. After mass I grabbed a shopping bag, mounted the bike, and pedalled out the couple of miles to his house.
His dour manner never changed, his gruff greeting, his awkward silence while I wrapped the eggs in the torn-up pages of the Farmers' Journal. In spite of all that I had a sense of a great warmth underneath, a sense that there was real worth hidden behind his austere façade.
Once, when I approached his open front door, I was taken aback by the sound of laughter. At first I thought he had company. I listened. There was no conversation, just the sound of the radio, which was blaring a familiar comedy programme. Then came another gust of laughter. I realised it was Charlie, laughing at every contrived joke, laughing with total merry abandonment. I was reluctant to intrude, but I could hardly turn away; neither could I remain like a perplexed rabbit and risk being caught eavesdropping. So I made some noise with my feet and approached the door slowly. Of course he clammed up the moment I entered and assumed his cloak of reserve.
Whether I betrayed in my manner that I had glimpsed him in an unfamiliar light, or whether his habitual humour had been disoriented by the comedy programme, or whether he was unnerved by the way I was glancing into his eyes to find the lightness he tried so hard to conceal, I do not know. But he surprised me again by going down to the room and coming back with a book, the biggest book I had ever seen. He held it with both hands and placed it on the table in front of me. There was a heavy brown leather cover on it with gold lettering so faded I could not decipher the title.
Charlie opened the book. From inside the cover he took a tattered yellow press cutting and placed it in front of me.
“Do you recognise that house?” he asked, pointing to the image of a thatched cottage at the head of the newspaper article.
I looked carefully. It was just another thatched cottage to me. I saw no distinctive features. I read the caption, hoping for a clue. “The house where Fr Joseph Mullooly was born.” Mullooly was a local name, but still I could not identify the house.
“What will you be when you grow up?” Charlie enquired.
“I don't know.”
“Well, rule out being a detective anyway.”
“Because you're sitting in that house right now.”
I glanced down through the newspaper article. It was a biographical piece on a Father Mullooly who had pioneered archaeology in Rome. He had been the prior of a church called St Clement's and had a feeling that it was built on top of an old basilica built by St Clement himself in the early years of the church in Rome. So he started excavating. Not only did he find St Clement's Basilica, but he found the ruins of an old Roman temple beneath that again. It was such an astonishing discovery that all the monarchs of Europe came visiting to see it and admire it.
I was impressed. I had never encountered fame before, not the kind of fame that is documented in newspapers. I studied the picture of the house again. Gradually I began to recognise some distinguishing features even though it was clear that the photograph had been taken a long time previously.
I opened the book and turned to the title page. It was written by the same Reverend Joseph Mullooly and it was an account of his
“Can I borrow it?”
“That book hasn't left this house since it arrived nearly a hundred years ago.”
“But I'd like to read it.”
“Then you'll have to read it here.”
I turned to the first page and started to read, but every second word I couldn't understand.
“The words are very hard. Have you read it?”
“I'm not a scholar. But I think you have the makings of one.”
“Why do you say that?”
Charlie looked at me and I detected a suppressed smile on his face.
“For one thing, you wear glasses.”
“But that's because I'm short-sighted.”
“Aren't you that way from reading books?”
“Only school books. And the comics my friend gets from America.
Have you any more books?”
“Only that one. What would I be doing with books?”
“You've kept this one for a hundred years.”
“That's different. He was my great grand-uncle, and he was born in this house. I was born here too, and I inherited the house, the farm, and the book. When my mother was dying, she put more store on passing the book on to me than the house and farm. I'm sure she never read it. Neither did I. But still it's as if without it the sun wouldn't rise or the grass grow or the hens lay their eggs. That's the way it's been with us.”
“Like the O Donnells.”
“Which O Donnells would they be?”
“The O Donnells in Donegal, you know, the famous O Donnells.”
“Oh, those O Donnells.”
“They had St Colmcille's book, the oldest book in Ireland, and every time they went into battle they brought the book with them. They believed that while they had the book they could never be defeated.”
“I know how they felt. Who told you that story?”
“It's not a story; it's in our history book.”
“Do people know?”
“Know what? That I had a famous great grand-uncle?”
“Yes. And that he was born here.”
“People nowadays have no interest in such things.”
I turned the pages and found some illustrations. I could make little sense of them. Then I found a portrait of the author. I scrutinised him but found no resemblance to Charlie. But then it had taken me a long time to recognise the features of the house in a photograph of it, so maybe he was right, maybe detection was not my strong point.
“How long would it take you to read it?”
“I'd say a long time. It's a book for grown-ups.”
“I'll lend it to you for a fortnight, and we'll see how you get on.”
“But you said it's never been out of the house before.”
“That's right, but I think I can trust you to mind it.”
“I would. But are you sure?”
“A fortnight. And then I'll expect you to tell me what's in it.”
“I will. I'll be very careful with it.”
I could scarcely believe that he was giving me the loan of this book. Breathless, I watched him wrap it carefully in a double sheet of the Irish Independent. He placed it in the bottom of my shopping bag.
“Be careful of the eggs now. If you break one, it will drip all over the book.”
In a state of terror I cycled home. Every slight twist of the handlebars sent shivers through me. Every bump of the wheels wrenched the breath out of me. But I was an expert at ferrying home large bagfuls of eggs without breaking any. So when I unpacked the bag I found the book nestling safely at the bottom.
When Mother enquired what I had there, I replied that it was just a book Charlie had lent me. I took it to the front room and lay down on my bed fondling it and smelling the musty leather of the cover. Whenever I opened it I was daunted by text I could not comprehend.
Later I brought it out to the kitchen where Mother and Father were sitting back, as they usually did on a Sunday afternoon, reading the newspaper. I showed them the book and told them about Charlie's famous great grand-uncle. Mother fingered through the illustrations and when she came to the portrait, she began picking out the features that resembled Charlie's.
“Where's the book we have?” I asked.
“Do you mean ‘The Golden Treasury'?”
There was only one book I could mean.
“It's up there in the press,” she said.
I got a chair and climbed up. In among the bags of sugar and the bags of fl our, the bextartar, and the tea, I found it. There was no cover on it, back or front, and the first page was numbered xxiv. I wiped off the coating of fl our and sugar and crumbs.
“Can I have this?”
“You can if you want it. It's been lying around long enough.”
I brought it with me and went back to lie on the bed, examining it. Yes, it had been lying around for long enough. I recalled it's having a tattered red cover one time. How long had it been in the family? Maybe a hundred years, like Charlie's book. It was our book, our family heirloom, and now I owned it.
I opened it and began to leaf through the pages. Most of the introduction was missing and the last page ended in the middle of a
poem, so there were pages missing there too. However, in between, the book seemed to be intact. Some of the poems were familiar,
“Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman”, “The Poplar Field”, and I recalled mother reading them to us years before in the kitchen in Killenduff.
There were poems that I could not comprehend, others that couldn't have been simpler.
“She dwelt alone and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be
But she is in her grave
And, oh, the difference to me.”
I lay back, the book resting on my chest, wondering who Lucy was and why the poet missed her so much.
* ‘In the wake of the Bagger' was first published in 2006 by Scotus Press, Dublin