When Philip O Ceallaigh's first collection of stories burst on the reading public, it had a fairly electrifying effect. The likelihood was that after Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, his second collection might disappoint; and a dip would have been acceptable from such a disturbingly unique voice. But The Pleasant Light of Day merely confirms his reputation.
That, in itself, is phenomenal: to have become a respected fixture with only two books is, to say the least, unusual.
There are, by and large, three locales for this collection of stories (where there is a recognisable locale other than the uneasy world of a detached soul). They are set in Ireland, North Africa and eastern Europe, all made similar to each other by their individual narrators/central characters who obsessively seek salvation through a kind of grim self-sufficiency that withdraws fearfully from contact with the world.
From the student residences of Galway to the tourist hotels of Cairo and chalets of rest in the mountains of eastern Europe, the locale is actually a desert of the soul, a single journey of troubled longing, ending nowhere, but with arms still reaching out.
In Tombstone Blues, a man follows the reputed travels of St Antony to the roots of Coptic Christianity and settles in for what purports to be some research in a monastery library. Effectively, he is in retreat, indeed "on" retreat as Roman Christianity would put it. The supervising priest does not read the books which surround him. Questioned, he says merely, "I used to".
The pilgrim reflects on Athanasius' Life of St Anthony, in which the saint is mocked because he has no letters, and when he questions his mockers as to which is first, mind or letters of mind, they accept that mind is first and the inventor of letters. Antony tells them, "Whoever, therefore, hath a sound mind hath not need of letters."
The equating of anti-intellectualism with purity and peace of mind pervades most of the stories. That seems to be the universal search, broken only by a surging sexual desire that is almost profane in the context of its cold detachment. The narrator of Tombstone Blues seeks out a woman traveller he sees from his window, uses her as though she were hanging on a cross for him, but never wonders at the self-abasement of her compliance.
He makes no connection when she tells him she is dying of cancer; the darkness he later experiences when there is a power cut in his seedy Cairo hotel illuminates nothing for him: as long as he can locate the bottle beside him without knocking it over, it is enough. It's the light that is disturbing: when the power comes back, he is disturbed because the room is ugly.
In Uprooted, a young lecturer goes to a student party because, until he has tenure, he and his wife can't afford to live together, and he's lonely. The city is Galway, the hostess a young Circe who watches herself exercising power over men. There is damage in her smile, but Jonathan emerges relatively unscathed because he believes "the obstinate will inherit the earth".
Aidan, too, a sculptor at a loose end on a trip from Inis Mor, salvages his equilibrium with a return to the basics of collecting driftwood and preparing his barren island holding for planting after the visual and aural stench of the student party. Isolation is salvation.
Back in Cairo, in the story of the collection title, a man takes his small son to visit the museums, meticulously explaining the meaning of the words he uses to the avid youngster, combining truth with a tempering of realism.
When the boy asks why the ancient arrows on display are barbed, he tells his son it was "to hurt more", not that any attempt to pull them out would have ripped the flesh agonisingly. But he avoids the room of mummies, and as they sit to eat ice cream in the square named for the assassinated Anwar Sadat, he reflects that every generation goes about its business as if none of it had happened before.
This is O Ceallaigh's insistent, contradictory message. To find peace, the stories demand, man (and it is always man: women are receptacles in this strange world) must avoid analysis and immure himself in intellectual oblivion. But, by so doing, he condemns himself to learn nothing. And thus he remains an eternal traveller in a barren, unsure landscape of his own making, out of time and place.
It's a hell of a message; that O Ceallaigh delivers it so compellingly, enticing us, however reluctantly, into what he sees as its lonely certainties, is remarkable.