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Wednesday 20 August 2014

A country in crisis

Book Review: The Fall of Ireland by Dermot Bolger

Published 15/12/2012 | 05:00

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This is an oddly compelling short work of fiction – compelling because it's told so persuasively that you're engrossed from the opening page, but oddly so because what begins as one kind of story becomes something else entirely.

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Martin, through whose consciousness and conscience the story is told, is a middle-aged, mid-ranking civil servant who's in Beijing on a trade mission with his Fianna Fáil minister of state. Junior ministers, Martin observes, "were essentially eunuchs, granted the public bauble of a state car and driver to compensate for not being allowed to actually sit or speak at the Cabinet table", but Martin, a dutiful and diplomatic public servant, keeps such cynical thoughts to himself. Not from the reader, though.

With the country in economic collapse, the IMF has arrived in Dublin "crunching numbers in hotel suites . . . while treating Ireland's floundering government with the exaggerated courtesy that is invariably shown to the terminally ill".

But for the moment Martin is in China, helping to "prop up the illusion" that Ireland hasn't surrendered its economic independence and that his minister is someone of substance.

In reality, the minister is a career politician who had "languished for a decade in the limbo of the Seanad", an institution that had "no function beyond serving as a waiting room and a recovery ward" for unelectable candidates.

Now, however, he and his colleagues are heading for oblivion with nothing to contemplate but "the vast depths of their pension pots".

Although aided somewhat by hindsight, such observations (and there are many more) are elegantly withering, and the reader looks forward to encountering the venal minister himself, along with the rest of the junketeering delegation.

But that doesn't happen. Instead, the personal plight of 55-year-old Martin, who has three much-loved daughters but is trying to make sense of his wife Rachel's recent remoteness, becomes the book's true focus.

A self-effacing man ("Strangers genuinely enjoyed meeting him and rarely remembered him afterwards"), he has always striven to do the right and honourable thing, but now in this moment of crisis he behaves uncharcteristically, requesting the services of a masseuse in his plush hotel room.

Bolger handles this awkward interlude with considerable finesse – and with real tenderness, too, in his depiction of the masseuse, who in her ordinariness and gaucheness is just as much a lost soul as Martin. But she serves mainly to highlight Martin's own loneliness and estrangement from the woman he loves.

Indeed, it's as an elegy for a marriage that the book has its real power. The author lost his wife to sudden illness in 2010 and though it may be presumptuous to detect autobiographical elements, Martin's feelings about Rachel are imbued with a sense of loving regret so deeply felt as to be quite raw.

However, I wasn't convinced by the attempt to link Martin's marital "betrayal" (I didn't see it as such) with that of Bertie Ahern's government, but that's a small gripe to make about a book that begins in deceptively satiric mode before locating its true heart.

I like, too, that it's a novella. Too long to be short stories and too brief to be novels, novellas have a distinguished history, from Tolstoy's Hadji Murad and James Joyce's The Dead to Maeve Brennan's The Springs of Affection and Claire Keegan's Foster. Bolger's book, running to a mere 105 pages, is a notable addition to the form.

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