Sunday 19 November 2017

2016 Ones to watch: Lost in translation: a novelist with the wordplay to bewilder

Kevin Barry, writer

Gifted: writer Kevin Barry
Gifted: writer Kevin Barry

Olaf Tyaransen

Given the toxic nature of most online commentary, it's hardly healthy to regularly Google your own name, but self-confessed "raving egomaniac" Kevin Barry used to unashamedly do so dozens of times a day. Sensibly, the multi-award-winning Irish author has now kicked that dangerous addiction.

"I gave it up," he told Review last year. "My nadir came when a book of my stories came out in Italian, and I found myself googling myself in Italian. Sure enough, I found some blog, some f**ker out in Florence who had reviewed my book in this big screed, and given me one star out of 10!"

The Sligo-based writer should have left well enough alone, but Barry just couldn't help himself. "I immediately cut and pasted it into Google Translate," he recalled. "The first line went, 'I bought this book because I had previously read a novel by ­Sebastian Barry and it was ­fabulous, but this guy…'"

In truth, Barry's wordplay is usually so dazzlingly inventive, experimental and on-the-accent that it's easy to understand why it mightn't translate so well into Italian. The reality is that there's a hell of a lot more positive than poisonous reviews of his prose to be found online.

Besides, no matter what he says, the Limerick-born scribe is unlikely to let any keyboard warriors dent his confidence. When he published his 2007 debut collection of short stories There Are Little Kingdoms, the former journalist gave an interview to The Limerick Post in which he unashamedly proclaimed his ultimate ambition: "I won't be happy until I'm up there, receiving the Nobel Prize."

He was only half-joking. A superb storyteller with a gifted ear for dialogue, Barry has described himself as one of those "monstrous creatures who are composed 99pc of sheer, unadulterated ego" and "hugely insecure and desperate to be loved".

At 46, with only four books under his belt, he's still a long way off winning the Nobel, but numerous other prestigious literary awards and prizes have rolled in. There Are Little Kingdoms won the 2007 Rooney Prize. He followed this in 2011 with dystopian debut novel City of Bohane, which took the €100,000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2013, and was also awarded The European Union Prize for Literature. His sophomore story collection, 2012's Dark Lies the Island, included 'Beer Trip to Llandudno', which won the lucrative Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.

In late 2015, Barry published his second novel, Beatlebone, which was awarded the Goldsmiths Prize last November.

Set in Mayo in 1978, the short, surreal and hilarious book imagines a trip taken by John Lennon to Dorinish Island, the desolate Clew Bay property he bought in 1967. The Goldsmiths judging panel described it as "a novel that takes its reader to the edge - of the Western world, of sanity, of fame, of words".

Travelling to Clew Bay isn't the only trip Lennon takes in Beatlebone. The hallucinatory aspects of Barry's work can be ascribed to his former love of psychedelic drugs.

A hardcore hedonist in his youth, he is very familiar with their effects.

"They're a wonderful, great source of psychedelia for brave souls who persevere with them," he told Review.

"I was a martyr in my late teens, early twenties, for mushrooms and acid. It was usually a positive experience in opening out my mind."

He hasn't bothered with anything so heavy in recent years.

"These days it tends to be the odd puff of weed and a nice pale ale. Very middle-class, middle-aged pursuits!"

His success didn't happen overnight. A respected freelance contributor to many Irish and international publications, he gave up j0ournalism to concentrate on fiction in his late twenties.

The subsequent lean years initially involved living in a caravan on a Cork beach for six months while he wrote an unpublished first novel.

Nowadays, he writes seven days a week in a converted garden shed in Sligo. "I have a guilt complex because I didn't work hard in my twenties and was 37 before a slim volume of stories appeared," he told Hot Press in November.

City of Bohane is currently being adapted into a TV series. Barry reportedly began writing a sequel on December 21, the winter solstice, which he reckons will take him until June 20, the summer solstice, and be published in early 2017.

Meanwhile, nobody will be surprised to see Beatlebone on the next Booker shortlist.

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