«TRESPASSING BOUNDARIES: ROBERT McLIAM WILSON'S SATIRICAL TRANSGRESSION IN EUREKA STREET 1 Juan Francisco Elices Agudo U.N.E.D. Together with Glenn ...»
TRESPASSING BOUNDARIES: ROBERT McLIAM WILSON'S
SATIRICAL TRANSGRESSION IN EUREKA STREET 1
Juan Francisco Elices Agudo
Together with Glenn Patterson and Colin Bateman, Robert McLiam Wilson can be
considered one of the first Northern Irish authors who has convincingly approached
the "Troubles" in a provocative and unconventional way. The dramatic vision of the
conflict we can find in works such as Brian Moore's Lies of Silence or Bernard Mac Laverty's Cal are totally transformed into a more satirical vision in McLiam Wilson's Eureka Street. In this novel, the Northern Irish author goes against the tendency to present terrorist attacks in favour of a bitingly comic satire against politicians, terrorists, well-to-do citizens and exacerbated nationalists, whom he sees as one of the most dangerous threats to art. This paper will examine the satirical strategies the author draws on in Eureka Street, and explain their function in the narrative and contextual framework of the novel. In this sense, I will chiefly focus on the rhetorical devices which recur most frequently, as well as the role of the city of Belfast and its inhabitants as the unquestionable generators of satire in the novel. I will also demonstrate that this novel conforms to most of the parameters that characterise twentieth-century satire, specifically its lack of moralising objectives, which is basically what differentiates current satire from that of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.
Not at all, satire is never pointless. It makes us look stupid and besides it's just a pretty good wheeze. (Eureka Street 356) The socio-political and religious turmoil in which Northern Ireland has been immersed for the last thirty years has undoubtedly been a key source in the literary production of a significant number of Irish authors. Novelists such as Brian Moore, Bernard Mac Laverty, Glenn Patterson or Jennifer Johnston, poets like Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice and Paul Muldoon; and playwrights such as Ann Devlin and Brian Friel, prove the extent to which Irish literature, and particularly Northern Irish literary production, has progressively achieved the noteworthy status it This paper was written thanks with the financial and academic support of the research project "Reescritura y géneros populares en la novela inglesa reciente" [BFF2000-0756], supervised by Professor Fernando Galván Reula.
ATLANTIS Vol. XXIV Núm. 2 (Diciembre 2002): 85-94.
currently has. Nevertheless, despite this conspicuous re-emergence, critics still cast certain doubts upon the literature grounded directly or indirectly on what has been commonly denominated as the Troubles. Some of them suggest that the literature of the Troubles is the result of the authors' partial and partisan vision of the conflict.2 Others question the literary quality of these writings, especially the Troubles thriller, which, they believe, can only qualify as mere journalistic documentaries.3 However, it is unquestionable that the peculiarities to which this literature has been subjected have turned it into an increasingly demanded and studied topic, especially once the conflict, its origins, development, implications and current impact has become a major issue in most news reports.4 Due to the conflict's inherent historical, religious and political complexities, it is not the aim of this paper to deal extensively with or go into depth the actual controversies of the Northern Irish Troubles, but simply to explore the satirical background that underlies Robert McLiam Wilson's most recent novel, Eureka Street (1996). This author represents, together with Benedict Kiely and Glenn Patterson, what some critics have denominated a new wave in the writing that centres specifically on the Troubles and their aftermath. The innovations they have managed to incorporate fundamentally reside, first, in the utilisation of new modes of expression, which somehow depart from the journalistic-like accounts of Kevin Dowling or Gerald Seymour, or the realism that characterises Mac Laverty's or Johnston's narratives; and, more importantly, in the use of new rhetorical strategies such as parody, irony, metafiction and satire, which accord much more with ongoing postmodernist trends. In this vein, McLiam Wilson's satirical visions in Eureka Street epitomise some of the traits that best exemplify these new and, occasionally, irreverent approaches to the conflict. Consequently, this analysis will concentrate on his singular exploration of the Troubles, identify the targets he most bitingly satirises and the strategies he draws upon in order to construct this attack. To place in this context, it is worthwhile providing a brief overview of the evolution of satire in Ireland and how the influence of Swift or Sheridan's satire has remained indelible in the literary production of some contemporary Northern Irish authors.5 In his pungent portrayal of the situation of the city of Belfast between the 20th and 23rd of October, Graham-Yoole quotes Richard Bell's words in which he deflates the literary validity of "Troubles" literature: "There have been hundreds of novels about the Troubles, a majority of them thrillers, but not much literature. Violence is the subject most easily covered, without explanation, because the thriller requires none. But there is no literature on the tenacity with which peace has been pursued within the community, to match the counter-weighing force of the hard men. We would have thought that more quality would come out of Irish writers, given the history of Ireland as a producer of great writers. In fact, there hasn't been any. There has been some good poetry, and some good theatre. But no literature"( Graham-Yoole 1994: 290).
McMinn asserts that the great bulk of the novels written about the Northern Irish conflict is the outcome of the coverage carried out by journalists during the past thirty years (1980: 114).
For an illuminating and wide-ranging panorama on the current state of Northern Irish literature, see Marisol Morales (2000: 147-94)).
In the chapter he devotes to the poetic and satiric accomplishment of Austin Clarke, Terence Brown outlines a brief and illuminating overview of the role satire has performed in Irish literature (1988: 127ATLANTIS XXIV.2 (2002) Trespassing Boundaries: Robert McLiam Wilson's satirical Transgression in Eureka Street 87 The apology for satire that one of the characters in Eureka Street makes in the quotation that opens this paper can be taken as a valuable starting point for the forthcoming analysis of the satirical background of McLiam Wilson's latest novel.
The role performed by satire in the evolution of Irish literature has been, and still is, recognisable. It seems, therefore, that its somehow tragicomic dimension perfectly adjusts to the reality of a country that encompasses the pathos of a long-standing sectarian conflict and the citizens' willingness to live in a peaceful and harmonious environment. It is no wonder, then, that satirists have undoubtedly occupied a very significant and, sometimes, outstandingly influential position in the whole range of Irish literature, from the blemishing and destructive satires of Aithirne the Importunate to the witty and ironic drama of Richard Sheridan, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, not to mention the satirical contributions of Jonathan Swift, surely the most widely acknowledged and acclaimed Irish satirist. Such was the importance satire acquired in primitive Irish society that some critics, especially F. N. Robinson and Robert Elliott, have even referred to its magic nature. In his seminal article "Satirists and Enchanters in Early Irish Literature", Robinson carries out an extensive and detailed examination of the early origins and the decisive function satire performed as a weapon aimed at devaluing, denigrating and deflating the dignity and integrity of all those people at whom those lashing verses were directed (1912: 3).
From these pioneering stages, satire in Ireland, later developed, was carved and consolidated by Swift's, Sheridan's or Shaw's witticism, and finds in McLiam Wilson a notably distinguished practitioner. The author, born in Belfast in 1964, started his enormously precocious career at the age of twenty-five, when he published Ripley Bogle (1989). This story recounts the turbulent experience of a character whose diffused personal, political and religious identity leads him to enquire about the very nature of Irish national identity.6 Manfred's Pain (1992) is his second novel. It basically tells the life of an aged German Jew between the end of the Second World War and his experiences in contemporary London. However, it is probably Eureka Street the novel that has definitely launched his promising career as a novelist. It presents the story of a Catholic, Jake Jackson, and a Protestant, Chuckie Lurgan, two characters whose development unfolds in drastically opposite directions. Jackson has recently lost his English girlfriend and his job turns out to be as unrewarding and dull as his life in Belfast. Lurgan, on the other hand, represents Jackson's counterpart. His economic success, the result of conspicuously illicit operations, and his relationship with an American woman, which culminates in his fathering of a child, make Chuckie Lurgan the prototype of the self-made man, who manages to get on in an apparently hostile and suffocating environment.
These two characters allow McLiam Wilson to intertwine two different narrative layers æJake Jackson's first person narration and the third person narrative about Chuckie Lurgan æ, and also enable him to introduce a series of themes and Critics and reviewers have generally acknowledged McLiam Wilson's thematic and formal achievement
in Ripley Bogle. For further information on the critical reception of Wilson's debut, see Corcoran. (1997:
161); Patten (1990: 136-39), Graham-Yoole (1994: 290-91); and Smyth (1997: 132-35).
ATLANTIS XXIV.2 (2002) 88 Juan Francisco Elices Angulo issues that are inextricably interconnected with the situation Northern Ireland has dramatically lived through in the last thirty years. However, as I suggested above, he approaches the Troubles in a more humorous, parodic and sceptical way.7 In this vein, Eureka Street is partially exempted from the crudity and violence of other novels that deal primarily with the Northern Irish conflict,8 and focuses much more on the futility of this confrontation and the causes that may have brought it about.
One of the reasons that have undoubtedly triggered off and ignited the conflict is religion and, particularly, the long and unresolved Catholic-Protestant dichotomy.
This religious confrontation, which unquestionably points to further and underlying political considerations, is parodied, sometimes in an overtly derisive way, by some of the characters that appear in the novel. McLiam Wilson's criticism towards religious bigotry is embodied in a well-known tradition of religious satirists, whose principal aim was to denounce the corruption and follies that emerged among church people.9 His main intention, therefore, is to dismantle and satirise the apparently clear-cut religious divisions that have been repeatedly shown to justify the historical partition of the Northern Irish population. This explains why the majority of characters that turn up in the novel, excluding the radical Catholic Aoirghe, do not explicitly show their religious standpoints, and embrace more vague attitudes towards these two unreconciled positions. In the following passage, one of the most satirically accomplished in the whole novel, the author, clearly flouting the expectations of the readers, presents Chuckie Lurgan as a naturally born Protestant, who, despite these antecedents, attends with fervent enthusiasm one of the Pontiff's visits to Belfast: "The people around Chuckie went wild with delight and, as the Pontiff passed by where he was standing, Chuckie threw out his hands amongst the forest of stretching limbs and brushed the Pope's own fingers…. His hand buzzed with surplus blood, it felt suffused, electrified by the touch of fame, the touch of serious global celebrity" (1997: 30).
This first impression is even heightened in a much more parodic episode, which again presents Chuckie showing his double or even triple-facedness. It is clear throughout the novel that Lurgan is a desperate fame-seeking character. The former quotation, in which the reader can appreciate that religious convictions are raucously overturned, anticipates a much more satirical episode that manifestly undermines the polemical relationship that has existed between these two religious factions throughout their historical evolution. It seems that McLiam Wilson intends to emphasise how relative everything is, even the most traditionally assumed truths, According to Graham-Yoole, McLiam Wilson "is part of a younger set of novelists who are aloof,
irreverent, and humorous, who want to make the Troubles the problem of a different generation" (1994:
Eureka Street's overall optimistic and humorous tone is, nevertheless, tinged by incidents that perfectly illustrate the harshness and brutality of the Troubles. Chapter eleven, in which McLiam Wilson describes with notable accuracy how a bomb goes off in Belfast, killing several civilians, proves that writing humorously about the Troubles is a highly complicated task (218-31).
For a thorough examination of religious satire, see Edward and Lillian Bloom (1979); and Leonard Feinberg (1967).
ATLANTIS XXIV.2 (2002) Trespassing Boundaries: Robert McLiam Wilson's satirical Transgression in Eureka Street 89 and how easy it is to trespass the boundaries that have been historically marked by Catholicism and Protestantism, simply for the sake of obtaining social, economic or
political promotion. The following quotation illustrates this idea: