A time of violence: Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion

Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion. Baraka Books, Montréal, 2023

This edgy thriller by Irish-Canadian author Luke Francis Beirne has some similar elements to his previous novel Foxhunt, also published by Baraka Books. In my post on it just over a year ago I likened it to early le Carré (link HERE). Blacklion in some ways resembles some of Graham Greene’s fiction – in fact, Part 1 of this novel is called ‘The Quiet American’.

The setting is early seventies Ireland. The Troubles are at their height in Ultster. Ray, of South Boston American-Irish stock, has been dispatched by the CIA to infiltrate the IRA in the Republic with a view to re-establishing a lost line of gun-running. The aim is not so much as to support the Republican cause, as to prevent the Soviets from stepping in and further unbalancing the power dynamic in the Cold War.

Ray, as a conspicuous newcomer and outsider, has to win the trust of a deeply suspicious set of people (associated with the previous gun-running operation out of gangland South Boston) and IRA splinter-group volunteers. His loyalty is tested several times, each time in more dangerous and hair-raising ways. More than once his life is threatened, and he has to muffle his moral instincts when other people’s lives are on the line: to step in and prevent bloodshed he would jeopardise his cover.

There’s a sub-genre of thriller to which Blacklion makes a worthy contribution (a recent series of the hit UK tv series ‘Line of Duty’ is an example): the undercover cop/agent who has to compromise his human principles in order to fulfil his mission. This includes becoming involved in a sexual relationship with one of the female activists. The tension mounts when Ray’s initial guilt at deceiving Aoife turns into another kind of unease as he finds himself falling in love with her.

The plot is fairly standard for this kind of set-up, with increasingly nail-biting operations involving assassinations of rivals or suspected ‘rats’, and firefights with the British army that culminate in a dangerous operation in the town of Blacklion, just over the border in Ulster.

There’s less obvious political ideology in this novel than there was in 50s-set Foxhunt. There the conflicting and equally extreme positions of the Soviets and conservative Americans were foregrounded. In Blacklion, Beirne is more interested in what drives politically motivated activists to such extremes of violence, while also exploring the even more complex morality of the undercover agent. The validity of Ray’s actions and mission is never overtly judged; the narrative simply presents what happens and wisely leaves the readers to form their own views.

The fact that he is haunted by flashbacks of his previous illegal covert operation in Laos (during the Vietnam war) simply shows the price Ray pays for doing the job he does. In a way he comes to grudgingly admire the commitment to a cause demonstrated by the people he deceives, and to question his role and the murkier ‘cause’, if it could be called that, on behalf of which he is operating. As Yeats put it, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

One minor cavil. The prose is terse, unadorned – I suppose it could be called ‘hard-boiled’ in a Hemingway/Chandler way. But I was a little put off by one aspect of this style; there are times when the ‘this happened then this’ approach becomes intrusive. Let me try and explain with a fairly random example.

‘Ray walked around the car and opened the passenger side door. He climbed inside and shut it. Aoife turned the key in the ignition and started the car. The headlights played across the grass before the sand…’

Why not the even more pared-back, ‘They climbed into the car and drove off’…? I don’t mind that minimalist prose style, but moments like this grated a bit with me. But that’s a minor point. I enjoyed this novel a lot. It’s an exciting, compelling read, but also thought-provoking. Morality and character are as much in play as politics or action.

My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.

Bridge of names: Shaf and the Remington, by Rana Bose

Rana Bose, Shaf and the Remington. Baraka Books, Montreal, 2022.

The Remington in the title is a shotgun, and it plays a central part in the plot. Shaf is the brilliant, enigmatic maths and physics genius employed to home tutor young Ben, who’s falling behind at school. Ben quickly grows to revere this eccentric philosopher-scientist; his sister Nika falls in love with him.

Bose Shaf and the Remington cover But this is the Balkans at the start of WWII, so we know all will not turn out well. The setting is the fictional town of Sabzic, with an iconic centuries-old arched bridge spanning the divide between the ethnic and religious factions who live there (this sounds very like the famous Mostar bridge). These communities have lived in fragile harmony for centuries as invaders have come and gone, but this relative peace is shattered with the latest invasion by the fascists.

Ben’s father is often absent. He’s a commander of local partisans, fighting against the invaders. When Shaf disappears as well, it’s apparent he’s gone to join the struggle against Hitler’s forces. Ben is bereft. People around him start to die – and the Remington plays its part here.

The novel opens decades later, when Ben thinks he might have finally tracked down his elusive former tutor. Much of what follows is the back story.

This is an unusual and intriguing novel, told with crisp authority. The tragedy and suffering are described with restraint, and this makes them all the more vivid and affecting.

The hatred and violence that had been partially suppressed for so many years in this divided community are all the more shocking when unleashed by the incursions of Hitler’s hordes. They are heightened by the frequent mentions of the peace that had reigned uneasily for so long beforehand, symbolised by that unifying, linking bridge:

[Ten-year-old Ben often rides his bike across the bridge and leans on the parapet, looking down at the river below:] I also looked at the etchings done on the parapet that possibly went back a few centuries. With knives that had obviously cut some throats and severed arteries. Migrants, travelers, peddlers, soldiers, priests and conquerors had all stopped and looked down at the foamy swirls…A relatively amicable relationship existed between the three main religions as well as those within the Christian fold who were Catholic or Orthodox, and between Muslims who had once perhaps been Manichaeans or Zoroastrians, and people from the Caucasus who had adopted Judaism instead of being converted to Christianity or Islam. Their names and initials were engraved on the parapet [of the ancient bridge].

Everyone in the community speaks essentially the same language, ‘with minor modifications here and there’, using words incorporated from ‘past empires’. People from across the divides intermarried and lived together, ‘because they spoke the same language’.

Having recently been to Croatia, and read the first Croatia-set section of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I found this a gripping read. My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.

Spies and misdemeanours: le Carré, Boyd, Hill, Beirne

Time for a survey of recent reading.

John le Carré Silverview (Viking, 2021) This was passed on to me by Mrs TD: le Carré’s final published novel before his death two years ago. It’s a complicated story involving an ex city trader turned (non-bookish) bookshop owner who gets tangled up with spies, double agents and conspiracies. It’s entertaining as far as this kind of thing goes. The title is the name of the house where a shady former MI5 agent lives, imitating the name of Nietzsche’s house, of all people. I’d always thought the rural county of Suffolk was a peaceful, serene place to live (my parents and sister lived or still live there), but according to this novel it seems pretty much everyone in that part of East Anglia is involved in espionage and skulduggery.

William Boyd Love Is Blind (Penguin, 2019) I read this on the way back from Italy and left it on the plane, so rely on memory for this note. Brodie is a Scots piano tuner with a monster of a tyrannical father (a firebrand vicar-preacher, implausibly). Brodie falls in love with a Russian opera singer who’s also involved with a virtuoso concert pianist and his brutish brother. After hair-raising scrapes in various European cities Brodie finds himself in a remote jungle island assisting a pioneering woman ethnologist. As one does. The plot is even more complex than the le Carré. When Brodie discovers he has TB it gets even more tangled. The characters are a bit flat, but the descriptions of piano tuning are strangely engaging. This competent novel would have benefited from some editorial pruning.

Susan Hill The Comforts of Home (Vintage, 2019) Another handed on by Mrs TD. It’s one of a series, apparently, with the central character called Det. Chief Inspector Simon Serailler. It seems inevitable in this cop-centred genre that he’s a maverick rule-breaker and loner, despite being a serial flirt. The main crime (a murder on a Scottish island) at the heart of the plot is the least interesting part of the novel – it’s the relationships between Serailler, his GP sister and her husband, who’s also his boss, and her sons, that are the most entertaining aspect. There’s also a cold case (another nasty murder) that Serailler is put on to by said boss to ease him back into work after a horrific accident in which he’d lost his arm – an incident presumably from the previous novel in the series. I can’t say I’ll rush to read another one, though it’s all efficiently done, if a bit predictable.

Luke Francis Beirne Foxhunt (Baraka Books, 2022: ARC courtesy of the Canadian publishers). A cold-war thriller rather like early le Carré. In 1949 a Canadian writer called Lowell moves to London to edit a new magazine intended to promote Western literature, values and culture and its artistic freedom compared with the repressive regime of the Soviet Union. When a Canadian colleague is murdered he begins to realise all is not as it seems: the magazine’s backers are as sinister in their way as their enemies. The politically naïve Lowell undergoes a painful education in the amoral games played by these characters who lurk in the shadows. I’m not a huge fan of espionage novels, but this one is skilfully crafted and has an original premise and richly drawn characters. The revelation at one point that the Soviets were experimenting with advanced nuclear weapons is eerily pertinent given recent news about the brutal war/invasion in Ukraine and related developments.

There’s a foxhunt at one point, hence the title, but it’s not one as Trollope would have depicted it.

Yannis Tsirbas, Vic City Express

Yannis Tsirbas, Vic City Express. Baraka Books, Montréal. Published Sept. 2018. Translated from the Greek by Fred A. Reed. ARC

We don’t get many translations into English from contemporary Greek authors, so kudos to this Canadian imprint for bringing out this important little book. At just over 90 pp, it’s more of a long short story than a novella – another rarity in the publishing world.

Tsirbas Vic City coverBut it packs a punch way above its weight. What do you do if you’re trapped in your train seat opposite a bullying racist who insists on spewing out his bigoted views in a diatribe of hatred for foreigners, scrounging, dirty immigrants – anyone not ethnically Greek like him. Other passengers look the other way: no help there. The bigot ends with the usual: a final solution – poison them, as one would rats.

Our anonymous narrator does what most of us would initially do: keep pretty quiet and hope it’ll blow over. I’d like to think, though, that after a time, when the vitriolic monologue persists, and the fellow traveller (hah!) is challenged to comment, that we’d refute these vile slurs and maybe call the police: it’s a hate crime, after all.

Instead, the narrator placates him, or hides behind the banal messages on his phone. He even appears to give a half-hearted defence: we have scavengers of our own. Here’s his own internal justification that we’re made privy to; maybe it’s his ‘bourgeois courtesy’ that his wife upbraids him about;

I don’t want to have strong disagreements with strangers. Not with anybody, actually. What am I supposed to say to him? Talk about democracy and violence and culture?

Vic City is the area around the Victoria metro station in Athens, the man explains, once a proud working-class area for poor Greeks, now “infested” as this ultra-nationalist would put it, with East Europeans and migrants from other troubled parts of the world. It’s a dilemma much of Europe and America now faces: how to welcome and integrate the displaced refugees, fleeing crime, war and poverty, and to counter the rising tide of xenophobia and hostility towards them from people like this train guy.

Tsirbas doesn’t try to provide answers; like all good artists, he simply poses the right questions. They’re disturbing questions. When ordinary decent people don’t speak up, we’re in trouble. And he does so in a structurally and stylistically intriguing way. The story is really a collection of linked short stories, some of them linguistically garbled, perhaps to reflect the distress of the narrators. We get brief narratives of some of the people the racist despises, like the young man fainting from hunger, not having eaten for three days, or the mother too poor to pay for the treatment her premature baby needs.

Most disturbing is Meleti, the violent young racist who randomly attacks non-Greeks. He’s so appalling he even upsets the police, who normally turn a blind eye to racially motivated assaults – but only because he sports a tattoo intended to belittle them. Maybe this is the guy on the train.

Tsirbas shows us an aspect of the economic, political and cultural crisis that is pretty much  endemic. Normally we see it reported in the news media; this Greek novelist confronts it in an original and audaciously challenging way. There will be many more of these extreme Vic City types if we all continue to behave like this near-silent, intimidated narrator – a normal, seemingly decent chap, who in the end just walks away.

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (Hannah Arendt,The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951)