Tuesday 20 March 2018

Simple seafaring coming-of-age tale from master craftsman

Fiction: The Lonely Sea and Sky, Dermot Bolger, New Island, pbk, €13.95

In his prime: Bolger was just 18 when he set up Raven Arts Press.
In his prime: Bolger was just 18 when he set up Raven Arts Press.
Dermot Bolger's The Lonely Sea and Sky.

Hilary white

Dermot Bolger set out to write a 'rip-roaring yarn' and the end result is a testament to this national treasure's talent.

If, as someone once said, a writer's life begins at 35 then Dermot Bolger is surely now in his prime. The truth is that the 57-year-old has been an inveterate disciple of the written word since his punkish youth when he set up Raven Arts Press at the age of 18, a DIY outfit that sought to crystallise a new wave of Irish poets and novelists - Colm Tóibín, Eoin McNamee, Rosita Boland et al - into print form.

Raven was folded and repackaged as New Island Books in 1992. It has since made a name for itself as publishing midwives to distinguished voices in Irish fiction and non-fiction (their stable is home to the likes of Christine Dwyer Hickey and Nuala Ní Chonchúir).

"Minding the shop," as Bolger calls his time overseeing Raven, meant that he was one of the only writers of his generation not to live abroad, and it could be argued that this tether has contributed to a voice that, be it through poetry (his first love) or prose, is peerless in its understanding of the finest nuances of the modern Irish condition. Of his 12 novels to date, last year's Tanglewood remains the definitive work of social-realist recession fiction, something so uncannily observant and refractive that it made for excoriating reading in parts.

This latest is a departure from that realm of literary fiction and represents the Finglas native's desire to write a "rip-roaring yarn" that removes the gaze from the naval and points it at the navy. The Irish merchant navy during the Emergency, to be precise.

Bolger ranks The Lonely Sea and Sky among his "simplest" novels and it proves the point that simplicity need not be the mark of the simple-minded. It is a full-bodied barnstormer, a coming-of-age tale of wanderlust ideal for readers aged 12 to 92. It is an ocean-going epic of sacrifice and derring-do against the backdrop of war-torn Europe. It is a paean to a fledgling Ireland trying to find its feet as the ground moves beneath it. It is all these things and yet it releases submerged thematic buoys to the surface in that effortless Bolger manner. You can only do this if your craft has been carved to precision by time.

In 1943, a merchant navy ship called The Kerlogue was involved in one of the least-discussed acts of heroism during the Atlantic chapter of World War II.

En route back to Ireland from Lisbon, the vessel diverted off course after receiving an SOS signal from a German reconnaissance plane. The modest Irish craft rescued 168 German navy crewmen who had been left for dead in the Bay of Biscay following an Allied attack. Bolger's own father was a lifelong seaman and while he has fictionalised the real-life crewmembers of The Kerlogue, The Lonely Sea and Sky is a memorial to his father and that mariner generation who, for pittance, risked their very lives every time they embarked and rarely spoke of the horrors they saw or the colleagues they lost.

Like Bolger Sr, young Jack Roche is taken under the wing of neighbour and seafaring sleeveen Mossy Tierney, who helps the 14-year-old spoof his way on to The Kerlogue as a cabinboy. Jack's father went to sea and never returned, the assumption being that he had succumbed to a German U-boat strike, a day-to-day threat for innocent sailors of neutral Ireland. While boats at that time always displayed their colours and an "Éire" on the bough, U-boats and fighter planes weren't beyond using them for target practice out in the devil-may-care emptiness of the ocean.

Growing up more-or-less impoverished in small-town Wexford, Jack is coloured with the same charming callowness as Eilis in Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. But there is nothing like the ordered, system-based toil of a ship to develop backbone. After the seasickness subsides, Jack learns how to hold himself around a superb cast of crewmen that range in age, status, political stance and humour. When they tie-up in Lisbon, it is another planet which Bolger uses to introduce Jack to the world. A gorgeous romantic interlude takes place here that is full of tenderness and youthful palpitation as Jack encounters a Czech Jew living off her wits. Like Eilis, he is between two worlds - the heady exotica of Lisbon with its spies, refugees and this mysterious girl, and that of his duty to his family and sweetheart back in Wexford.

He'd probably never admit it, but Bolger displays hints of cine-literacy in the tale. The return voyage brings them into the course of the floating German sailors. All discussions - the ethics of Ireland's neutrality, the breadth of Hitler's evil, the squeeze Churchill put on Ireland to get access to the Treaty ports - are parked in the name of a decency so pure and uncontaminated it could only have emanated from the age-old code of the high seas.

"Before this ship sank he was a Nazi: now he's a drowning sailor. Out here, we're all sailors," an elderly crewman barks at Jack during the gruelling rescue scene when all Jack can see are the men who may have sunk his father's ship. As the crew exhaust themselves to pull these strangers aboard, The Kerlogue becomes a microcosm of humanity, complete with tension, grace, honour and even a pantomime villain in the form of the dastardly Lt Krausser.

As for Bolger the seaman, who never read any of his son's works, it is a veiled tribute to the man. This becomes apparent in the final throes of the tale as the author pans back and allows Jack to travel forward in time, his later years emulsifying with those of Bolger's father with heartbreaking poignancy. It is an unforgettable coda, so effused with beauty and sweep that it ends the saga on a transfixing note.

Bolger believes that The Lonely Sea and Sky will be lost on audiences in today's incarnations of those Allied countries who don't subscribe to the idea of neutrality, but he is wrong. Whatever about the timely ways this extraordinary novel will speak to a nation currently undergoing a mature reassessment of its epoch-defining insurgency, this story of selflessness, duty and a young lad's emergence into manhood via his actions is a universal hymn that will chime with anybody who understands that while good and evil are nebulous concepts, right and wrong are not. That it does this without sermonising is testament to the lofty skills of this national treasure.

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