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The Boston Phoenix Different Strokes 1

An interview with Seamus Deane.

By Nicholas Patterson

JUNE 8, 1998: 

READING IN THE DARK, by Seamus Deane

Seamus Deane opens Reading in the Dark (Vintage International, 246 pages, $12) with the inscription "The people were saying no two were e'er wed/ But one had a sorrow that never was said." These words, taken from a traditional Irish song, are an apt metaphor for the relationships that dominate Deane's eloquent first novel, set in postwar Northern Ireland. Secrets and pain define the relations between the unnamed young narrator and his mother, between his mother and father, and between the Catholics and Protestants who surround them.

Reading in the Dark works as a combined mystery and coming-of-age story. As Deane's young protagonist seeks to understand the world around him, he slowly uncovers the adult secrets of family vendettas, political treachery, and IRA-related murders. And as he unravels the mysteries that bind his family together and tear it apart, he learns too late that the truth comes at a high price.

Deane, the author of a number of books of criticism and poetry, brings to his novel a poet's ear for the beauty of language. Moving gracefully between the parlance of myths and legends and the harsh dialect of the streets, he creates a bittersweet adolescent world.

Q: How much of Reading in the Dark is fact-based? Is any of it autobiographical?

A: A lot of it. I wouldn't want to give a percentage, but in effect it's an interpretation of my own family's history. However, the novel in some ways is not just about one particular family, but also about Northern Ireland and what the Northern Irish state was like from the 1920s to the 1970s. It's the history of the Northern Irish, of minority experience, as well as the history of the family.

It's really a novel about politics penetrating the personal life, and I think that part comes from Northern Ireland's peculiar history. It's also a function of its size; its smallness ensures that everything within it is fitting intensely. The border between the private and the public is narrower there than it would be in a larger society or a less oppressed one.

One of the things that is central to the story is secrets. I think the problem of a society where so much is forbidden, so much has to be kept secret for political reasons, is that when a secret is revealed it has this strange ability to alter the world. It makes the real world seem phantasmal. Where the real and the phantasmal coincide with one another, that's a mark of a colonized society.

Q: What kind of lesson about Northern Ireland's society are you trying to convey to the reader?

A: Not so much a lesson as a perception. The distinction between what is supposed to be real and what's fantastic is almost nonexistent, because there is nothing more fantastic than the real.

Q: What to you think about the peace negotiation that has just been worked out in Northern Ireland?

A: I have a dozen feelings about it. It might contain the germ of a real solution, but I don't think in itself it is a solution. It will be modified in various ways. I think the central military problem in the north is the RUC, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It's a necessity for it to be disbanded and replaced with a nonsectarian, nonmurderous group or force. So those are issues that still have to be worked out. But I think the relation of Dublin is still too restrictive for the peace of mind of the [Catholic] minority, because despite all the years of Unionist fears, it's the minority that has suffered in Northern Ireland the most. It's the minority that needs protection most. I don't think that the present proposals are sufficient to ensure this end.

However, that said, it is possible to envisage the peace working and developing in a more genial atmosphere than has existed up until now. I suppose anything that brings even a modicum of justice and stops the killing has to be welcomed.

Q: In Reading in the Dark the narrator talks about the importance of learning Irish. Do you speak Irish?

A: Yes, but not as fluently or as perfectly as I would like. I learned Irish in school, and then I went to an Irish-speaking area in Donegal to learn it.

I think the knowledge of Irish is important especially if you're going to, as I do, write essays about Irish literature, even Irish literature in English. There's a thousand years of Irish literature in the Irish language as well.

It's amazing how much knowledge of Irish has been lost. A language and a literature are not facts of nature, but facts of culture. Many people can't speak Irish because they never had the opportunity. My own parents didn't know any Irish, but then they had very little schooling. They came from families that had once been Irish-speaking. That a language can be killed is something that feeds into a lot of Irish writing. Almost every Irish author has done translations from the Irish. They have to pay some homage to it. It's an almost lost language and something the Irish themselves played a role in destroying.

After the famine, Irish speakers would beat their children if they found them speaking Irish. They forced them to speak English because English was going to be the language of commerce, because they were all going to emigrate, they knew. There was a thing they used to have in schools called the tally stick, which was a stick they wore on a cord around their necks and every time they were heard speaking Irish, they would cut a nick in the tally stick. They would be punished for every nick cut in the stick. And that was a way of destroying the language. I think that created a psychic deformation in the Irish consciousness which is still there. They killed their own language partly in order to survive, but they destroyed something irreplaceable.

Q: What general differences would you say there are between the use of English by Irish writers and English writers?

A: Well, it's difficult to generalize, but I think that in the first place there's much more self-consciousness with Irish writers, partly because they don't take the language for granted. They know it's a cultural achievement that can be destroyed.

In the second place, there is some kind of difference between the English and the Irish national characters. The Irish do tend to be a good deal more passionate, more committed to certain kinds of versions of the personal life and versions of the political life. That's largely, again, because so much of what could be taken for granted in a place like England had to be fought for in Ireland. In some ways, being colonized and being oppressed squeezes so many things out, so that what is left is usually the most enduring and the most passionate kinds of experience and feelings. But the English had a homogeneous and uninvaded society for so long, and therefore could take much more for granted than the Irish ever could.

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