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Review: Fiction: Selected Stories by Benedict Kiely

By the time Ben Kiely died, aged 88, in 2007, he had become part of the air of Ireland -- on Sunday Miscellany that rolling Omagh accent was as familiar and as homely as the smell of rashers frying.

But a writer doesn't get to be a national treasure on the strength of a musical voice alone. Nor was it Kiely's Irishness that led John Updike to describe his writing as "uniquely bewitching".

The core reason was his genius for telling stories. That genius had a special character: for Kiely the longest way round was always the shortest way home. No story, he told Ben Forkner, the editor of this excellent collection, "should ever interfere with a good digression".

In that sense, Kiely was amazingly old-fashioned, particularly when you remember that in his heyday anyone who worked at fiction was labouring in the strict shadow of Ernest Hemingway. Sentences had to be as short as the writer could make them, and stories got to the point without hanging around.

Hemingway had been a hard news reporter and he followed the reporter's telegraphic code: tell the reader who, what, where, when and why, and then shut up.

But Kiely was a newspaper man too -- he started his career in the Irish Independent -- and his feature writer's credo was much older than Hemingway's. It dated back to Homer and beyond.

In the dark, pre-electric nights before the radio and the television were invented, the longer a story could be strung out the better, incidental information was essential and lengthy detours welcome.

That didn't mean the storyteller could be wasteful. Take, for example, the first story in this collection, The Heroes in the Dark House. The gist of it can be told in a single sentence: an old man who has apparently wasted his life collecting folk-tales manages to persuade a scholar to take an interest in them and at the same time discovers that a British army officer wants them to be distributed to soldiers fighting the Japanese in the Far East during World War Two.

But the gist has none of the zest of Kiely's wandering genius. Before we get to the end of its 10 pages we have flown past Florida, Kinsale, Thermopylae, Athlone and the Alamo, and along the way we have glimpsed Hitler, Hirohito (the Emperor of Japan) and Horace Plunkett, not to mention Maire John, a randy 80-year-old woman.

In a sense the story is Kiely's self-justification: he is the hero in the dark house, and the darkness he illuminates isn't just full of interest, it's reeling with what Louis MacNeice called "the drunkenness of things being various".

Colum McCann describes Kiely's method accurately: "When it comes to storytelling, there is really no such thing as an end, because the stories keep unfolding and influencing."

Unfolding is the operative word -- Kiely is like a merchant, a travelling pedlar, pulling out of his trunk a variety of silk scarves, one more colourful than the other. And at his best the merchant turns into a magician and the scarves into real human beings.

McCann also says of Kiely: "Put him up there on the shelf alongside Joyce, Beckett, McGahern, O'Brien." This, too, is accurate. But I would add John Millington Synge.

Really, what we hear in Kiely's voice is a Catholic development of the Protestant Synge's way of telling a romantic and rollicking story about the playboys and playgirls of the western world -- if only they knew as much about that world as Kiely did.

There, everything good has happened in the past and needs to be rescued by memory before it vanishes, and almost all his heroes are lonely and disillusioned, as moth-eaten as a Celtic Tiger.

This is a book for the old who are full of nostalgia for the days before the deluge when "God's good green Sunday countryside was softly all around us".

But there is wisdom in it, too, for the young -- mainly to realise that, as the conclusion of A Journey to the Seven Streams puts it: "It's a little thing that doesn't last longer than a man."

That these stories have already lasted longer than their creator is a testament to his uniqueness as a writer. This collection belongs in every modern Irish person's Christmas stocking.

Brian Lynch's film adaptation of Ben Kiely's novel The Cards of the Gambler won a European Script Fund Award in 1989

Indo Review