Review: Fiction: My Traitor by Sorj Chalandon
Lilliput Press, €10
Sorj Chalandon is an award-winning French journalist and author who covered the Northern Ireland conflict for the left-wing daily Liberation. In 2007, he published an acclaimed novel in French, drawing on his experience there and located firmly in West Belfast.
It tells the story of Antoine, a reclusive Parisian violin-maker who, having had his interest in Ireland and James Connolly stirred by a passing Breton nationalist, travels to Belfast to find out for himself.
A chance encounter with IRA activist Jim O'Leary provides him with a friend and sponsor, a guide through republican politics as well as through the drinking clubs of the ghetto, and free lodgings on his trips to Belfast.
In a urinal in a republican club, he falls in with Tyrone Meehan, a very senior activist who shared a cell with Bobby Sands. He takes to him for some reason, becomes his patron and protector, and after the death of O'Leary, his host on subsequent visits. Antoine admires him to the extent of hero-worship, and in turn provides a safe house in Paris for his Provo friend.
The book catches, with remarkable atmospheric accuracy, the claustrophobic nature of life behind the barricades, where reality unfolds on the closed-circuit TV of race memory, the sense of solidarity with the prisoners, the omnipresence of the Saracen and the helicopter, the brutality of the encounter between community and the security forces, the sense of victimhood, and the fatalism of those facing death for a cause (or by accident, for no very good reason at all). It is a wholly gripping tale.
In a series of snapshots, the narrative moves episodically through the hunger strikes, the death of Bobby Sands, through wakes and funerals and interminable drinking sessions, through street violence and protest to ceasefires and the move into politics.
Only then, with Sinn Féin firmly established in Stormont, does it emerge that Meehan had been in the pay of the Brits for years, betraying his friends, his colleagues, his community, the movement, and, in this case, most painfully, Antoine himself.
Court-martialed by the IRA and expelled, he chooses internal exile in a remote part of Donegal where he was shortly afterwards shot by unknown assailants.
This must have been stirring stuff for French readers, far enough away from the battlefield not to get the smell of blood or hear the cries of victims.
In a roman a clef, not quite fiction, part of the pleasure is guessing the real names of the characters (there are only two that matter). At the time, too, there were enough contenders emerging for the role of highest-placed tout in the IRA to provide an element of choice.
However, for the English version, the author helpfully identifies Tyrone Meehan as Denis Donaldson and Antoine as himself, transforming fiction to faction, if not documentary, with a strong seasoning of autobiography.
This provides a completely different encounter with the text for Irish readers, who will each bring their own baggage to the reading, affecting their view of both Meehan/Donaldson and Antoine/Chalandon.
It is still a well-told tale, but seen through different lenses -- the sense of commitment precludes authorial objectivity, as does the unquestioning commitment to the aims and methods of the armed struggle and the lack of any sense that there were other victims too.
It remains, however, as good an account of life behind the barricades in the worst period of the Troubles that we are likely to get for some time. Chalandon has earned the accolades for the French original, and his translators, Fiona McCann and Kitty Lyddon, have served him well, too.