'I knew I wanted to write about my family, particularly dementia' - Ian Maleney
Ian Maleney's essay collection is the second non-fiction title from Tramp Press, following Emile Pine's hugely successful 'Notes to Self'. Focused on memory, belonging and notions of home, his writings are as cerebral as they are personal
During the last few years of his grandfather's life, Ian Maleney watched and listened. On visits to his homeplace in Co Offaly, as he spent time with the man who meant so much to him and who now had Alzheimer's, the outline of an idea began to form. He made recordings, he took notes and when his grandfather died, he began to write. The result is Minor Monuments, a beautifully composed and haunting collection of essays on memory, belonging and the meaning of home.
"I knew I wanted to write about my family and particularly about dementia," Maleney tells me when we meet in a Dublin hotel. "I wasn't sure for a long time what shape that would take."
It's odd for him to be on the other side of a voice recorder. A sound engineer-turned-journalist, he reckons he's probably conducted more than 700 interviews in his time.
Having read his work, I'm also more conscious than usual of the recorder's small red light. Minor Monuments is partly about recording and in one particularly vivid section, he describes being out on the bog near where he grew up. When the small red light of his recorder goes on, he holds his breath, feeling every breeze, raindrop and insect against his skin. Later, the sound files become like flash cards, a reminder that he existed in a particular time and place.
As cerebral as it is personal, the book is both an elegy and a philosophical inquiry into the questions that preoccupy him. It's rooted in the area around his family farm but for him, landscape and mindscape are very much intertwined and the 12 essays often branch out into unexpected places, taking in the work of the physicist John von Neumann for example in an extraordinary and intricately researched essay that looks at Alzheimer's as an existential illness.
Maleney's grandfather, John Joe, is a real, flesh-and-blood individual but the disappearance of his memories is part a wider disappearance - of collective memory and a way of life that enabled people to say: this is the centre of the world. With a poet's understanding of metaphor, Maleney returns again and again to the bog as a geographical reality and a place of industry as well as a symbol.
He left the midlands when he finished school, trained as a sound engineer in Dublin, fell out of love with sound engineering and became a journalist. Through the essays, he articulates the intense push-pull force that home continues to exert. It's intensely relatable because although Minor Monuments is place specific, the subject matter is universal; most people have a relationship with the idea of home, no matter how peripatetic their lives.
In writing the collection, Maleney says he was interested in trying to find the places where his own experience connected with a thought he'd been having or an idea he'd read. John Berger is a big influence and he draws on the work of several other writers, philosophers and theorists, including Seamus Heaney - an important figure to him when he was younger.
Unusually, in a book that is so much about family, there is no anger, no bitterness, no score-settling, no drama, no trauma, and though he is occasionally scathing about his younger self, he maintains the privacy of those who appear on the page. "With personal essays or memoir there is a sort of expectation or a trend at the minute, of revelation," he says. "...those can be really wonderful pieces of work but that's not me.
"It [the book] didn't need to have my parents' names... You are writing about people who are still alive and who are related to you, and so you have a duty of care to those people as well as the story... you don't want to open those people up to something they might not necessarily be comfortable with...
"It's not about me laying myself out on the page for people. It's about the ideas. It's about the concepts I use to navigate my own life. So those are the things I want to talk about, not necessarily the finer points of my relationship with my family or with anybody else. My partner's in it twice - she was there for everything."
On most levels, Minor Monuments couldn't be more different to Notes to Self, Emilie Pine's groundbreaking collection of essays published by Tramp Press last year but like Pine, Maleney understands how to push his chosen form in new directions and how to explore deep ambivalences - in his case, contradictory feelings about home.
"I can be there, I can spend time there and be perfectly happy and everything's fine, everything's great," Maleney says. "But... sometimes you just become aware that you are having very different thoughts to the people around you... You can be watching the same event and be having completely different thoughts, not better, not worse, just different."
He writes of his sense that it is his job to preserve some of what his family leave implicit, and it's a testament to the strength of his writing that he carries out this act of preservation in a style that honours, even mirrors, their restraint. He is honest about the tools they have given him and about how the psychic distance he sometimes feels from them can be accentuated by writing.
"There's a tendency towards thinking of writing as being something that brings people together or makes people feel closer to each other, a sort of empathetic kind of feeling," he says, "but I don't think that's always the case at all. I think sometimes writing is the very thing that separates you, that brings you away and puts you on your own."
In a circuitous way, the book links in to his most recent project. He has spent the last six months making a four-part podcast called Supply and Demand for Dublin InQuirer. Timely and illuminating, the series is an in-depth analysis of Dublin's housing crisis.
"The book is not very political, that's not to say that I'm not political..." he says. "There are things within our lives that do not map neatly on to financial decisions. When we do over-financialise things, we damage them significantly. You could put monetary value on our farm at home but what would that capture? It's nothing to do with the people who have lived there and what it means to them, and that's true of any home."
Minor Monuments on the other hand has everything to do with these fundamentals, and gently but relentlessly and without sentimentality or evasion, Maleney has captured what they mean to his family and to him.
'Minor Monuments' is published by Tramp Press. Ian will be appearing at the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival tomorrow