There’s a Zulu proverb – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – that roughly translates as “A person is a person because of people”: in other words, our characters are shaped by those we encounter and are ever changing.
That is the rough theme of Tom O’Neill’s Grattan and Me, a sprawling, freewheeling satirical look at modern Ireland, circa 2014 – a country coming out of the recession and with more problems than it cares to admit.
Part Cervantes, part Flann O’Brien, part Thomas Pynchon, it mixes philosophical reflection with scenes of low, broad comedy and meta-fictional asides from its unreliable narrator as well as the editors of the publishing house tasked with the misfortune of wading through the manuscript.
It is a novel both crass and high-minded, and it is overstuffed with as many facets of ‘the Nation’ (a term used reverently, irreverently and frequently) as it is possible to fit into a 400+ page novel: corrupt public servants, thuggish policemen, lapsed Catholics, IRA-types, hippies, anti-fracking activists, Dublin 4 dinner party-types, fallen Anglo-Irish aristocracy, bogmen, tinkers, and ex-missionary priests longing to get the hell out of the country.
Its two protagonists, Grattan Fletcher (man who looks “like a cross between Mary Robinson and Tom Waits”) and Leonard Cromwell ‘Suck’ Ryle are civil servants who take it upon themselves to travel the country like a latter-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in search of the true Ireland – a quest instigated by Fletcher, an ageing civil servant whose career has mostly been in the examination and restoration of heritage buildings, as he considers running for President of Ireland. Or as ‘true’ an Ireland as can be made up.
In matters of the Nation don’t set out to find the truth … it’s better to set out to establish your view as the truth.
These words are spoken by Ryle, the more pragmatic of the two, a man with a chequered history: he is the illegitimate grandson of one Colonel Welbore Cromwell Kox and one of the Colonel’s maids, and was once a member of the British Army, and it’s not clear what exactly his job is – he’s described as a storeman at the Office of Public Works and he has sets of keys to various vans and offices within the government. He is both devoted to and repulsed by his colleague, and spends most of the novel grumbling about the more high-minded Grattan’s flights of fancy.
Ryle also has an eye for the ladies and wastes no opportunity to seduce practically every woman who crosses his path, including Grattan’s wife, Margot, a woman increasingly concerned about her husband’s trips out of Dublin (Grattan invariably returns from the road bruised and beaten as nearly everyone he runs into ends up wanting to inflict bodily harm on him).
Yet Ryle still holds his friend in somewhat high regard.
Grattan has his head up his arse; over-educated but unable to do the most practical thing; but well able to waffle on for hours about some nonsense he’s latched on to at the historical book club the previous night; still unhealthily devoted to the first woman he ever rode and the premature grandchild he’d got out of her; but, maybe not the worst of them at the back of it all.
The novel is narrated by Tommy Nail (is he the Me of the title rather than Ryle?), a highly unreliable narrator, a painter who Grattan and Fletcher meet on their travels. There is also a figure called ‘The Compiler’ – a novelist who has put together the manuscript that we are reading, who frequently interrupts the narrative to provide comment on the proceedings. There are also the book’s Editors, who comment in turn on the Compiler’s comments, and who have excised many of the manuscript’s passages.
In other words Grattan and Me is a playful, postmodern novel. It’s also, for want of a better term, distinctly Irish, by which I mean that although its concerns are global (immigration, fracking, activism, adultery, etc), they are also parochial, especially in its satirical targets, and in its analysis of urban-rural class divisions or distinctions between, say, “a Rathmines accent” and “a Clontarf accent”.
The novel’s villain is another civil servant, Cathal MacGabhann, Grattan’s superior (the two are contemporaries and came up the ranks of the Civil Service together). MacGabhann’s given name is Charles Smith, but he long ago adopted a Gaelicized version of his name for career purposes.
MacGabhann is the sort who used to frequent rock n’ roll forums on the Internet before deciding that opera was better suited to a man of his social ambitions, and whose Civil Service leave now coincides with opera festivals in Europe – in the words of The Compiler, he leads a “tightly walked personal life” of sorting out his music collection in his garage while his wife lugs home the shopping. He is a man for whom the melodramatic plots of opera hold great attraction, and he is intent on revenge against Grattan.
He was a relentless gourmand of revenge. He was of the slow food school, planning meticulously and getting full enjoyment from the earliest stages of anticipation, long before the first aromas of stewing meat began to tantalize his refined olfactory senses … an unnamed inner voice told him that forgiveness was an alien tenet touted by liberal psychologists and New Testament fundamentalists with social neutering rather than one’s individual well-being as their prime objective.
The novel’s plot – Grattan Fletcher’s travels around the country to talk to ‘ordinary people’ with a mind to gathering future votes in his bid for the Presidency – is initiated when he happens upon an application form that his daughter has filled in for residence in Australia (along with her four-year-old daughter). The possibility of his daughter and granddaughter moving to the other side of the world because Ireland offers no future, sets Grattan into a despondent tailspin, but out of it he comes resolved “to do something every day that might make him feel admired rather than thoughtfully considered by the people he loved.”
Fletcher and Ryle, having done little in their careers other than put the time in and avoid notice by their superiors (Ryle, in fact, is something of a phantom in the OPW and the Heritage Department, having gone unnoticed by MacGabhann for years), decide to do something for the Nation – or at least Grattan decides: “it always takes someone from the educated classes, someone who knows how the machine works, to turn around and lead the people who are ground down by it. Think of Tone, Lenin, Ghandi …”
Grattan embarks on a campaign to be President with the notion that “I will go there as directed. Not for the perks, which I will repudiate. I don’t need more than I have. But for the fact that it will give me the forum to do more, to elevate the voices of the voiceless, to demand the reforms that people are crying out for, to cement the gains you and I will have already made by then.”
The two set off then on their quest, usually involving day trips to the countryside. They meet anti-fracking activists; a poverty-stricken Anglo-Irishman, Travellers, Nigerian 419 email-scammers, and anti-austerity protesters. There are philosophical and political debates between Grattan and Ryle, and Ryle, the coarser, more foul-mouthed of the two, is the more devious and violent, acting as agent-provocateur and invariably provoking others into a fight (one encounter with a BBC film crew outside the convent where Martin Fletcher is staying on his visit home descends into a near-brawl when the “Jeremy Paxman type” with the camera crew investigating Magdalene laundries mistakenly thinks that Ryle and Fletcher are priests, and is taken aback when Ryle threatens them with a flurry of foul language and hurls a brick at the camera).
There’s also Grattan’s cousin, Martin, a Redemptorist missionary priest returned from the Philippines, and who can’t wait to get back there, so appalled is he at the state of Ireland.
There’s a cruel meanness at large in my country now more pervasive even than I remember in the 80s … the pillorying by the modern day hierarchy of Irish society, the defamation, the lack of any right to reply, the judging of those who went before by a new canon of heartless enlightenment as if it itself will have nothing to answer for when the time comes … We feed our aunts and uncles to the bloodhounds because we are too weak to ask our parents the truth. And the kindness where it exists? The Irish kindness of not coming out to your face. Another generation lacking the courage of its convictions. The patronizing tribal contempt expressed in what is not said. Stoning would be more humane.
Grattan and Me is therefore a State of the Nation novel, and a very funny one.
Verdict: Four Crusty Squad Gardaí out of Five