Monday, February 11, 2008

The Truth Commissioner by David Park

The Truth Commissioner by David Park

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission requires your attendance ... case number one hundred and seven, the case of Connor Walshe ... The Commission has the power to compel attendance ... Where required, legal representation can be provided ... All political parties, churches and community groups have agreed ... a necessary part of communal healing and the peace process ... Closure ... All participants are indemnified and absolved from any legal or civil repercussions as a result of their testimony ...”

The gestation period of most books is probably closer to that of an elephant than a child! So an author could have a great idea that is sadly overtaken by events and diminished by the time it’s edited, proofed, published and distributed to high-street bookstores and online retailers.

David Park has struck it lucky. Northern Ireland is sitting at the painted give way line waiting to drive out onto the roundabout of dealing with our past. Yet everyone is wondering what exit to take, what road we should journey down to try to uncover the truth behind events in the conflict. Indeed, some are wondering whether to go all the way around the roundabout and just head home along the road in which we came.

The Bradley/Eames commission have finished their round of public consultations and are now locked away in a quieter period of reflection. In parallel, society continues to review what it actually knows about its past and how much it’s willing to find out. So much like Truth in Translation’s visit to the Lyric Theatre as part of last year’s Belfast Festival, it is a good moment to be reading David Park’s latest novel The Truth Commissioner as it rehearses one of the possible ways forward.

After an introductory opening chapter, the novel switches to four equally balanced pen pictures of the main characters. The reader spends a few days with each, learning about their story and motivation through how they conduct their relationships and the odd mental aside. Glimpses into fascinating and complicated lives.

  • Henry Stanfield is one of the six Truth Commissioners trying to sort out his own sad and lonely life as well as unpicking the history of the conflict.
  • Francis Gilroy is a veteran of prison and now nicknamed the Lemonade Man - the minister for Children and Culture (rather than the better known local C&C producers of fizzy drinks, Cantrell and Cochrane). He juggles community justice, weddings, poor health and a continued emphasis on his personal (in)security.

“You know what Goebbels said about culture? ... He said that whenever he heard anyone talking about culture it made him want to reach for his gun. Now let’s try those suits on and get this over with.”

  • With Irish roots, Danny has made his home in America, finding love with Ramona in the shadow of the local university campus, feeling loyalty for the unjustly accused while harbouring mental anguish that won’t go away.
  • And the hill-walking James Fenton is glad to be out off the police, and wants to enjoy his retirement.

Readers from outside Northern Ireland will enjoy the story. But I think the plot will strongly resonate with local readers, who will pick up on the fragments of Northern Ireland’s past that are being uncovered and destabilised. Informers, the Disappeared, bugging, securocrats.

“The lurid yellow of the enormous cranes strikes an attempt at defiance but they look like nothing so much as giant hurdles waiting for a Finn McCool to jump them.”

The local detail is fascinating. Using the Harland and Woolf (Titanic) drawing office as the commission’s document archive felt so appropriate for a fated process that could be perhaps more crash’n’burn than iceberg-smitten.

There are countless observations in the book that I’m sure are more factual than fiction. A bit like Glenn Patterson’s That Which Was which definitely had clerical input into its portrayal of a Presbyterian Minister, I wonder who snitched on the tea ladies up at Stormont who in the book are from the local Protestant estates and “probably still think of him [the nationalist Lemonade Man] as the Antichrist”. Secretly reading poetry to overcome his literary weakness sounds like a couple of actors in the current Stormont Executive! Though would the driver of a Stormont minister not have avoided McDonald’s drive-though in preference for the award-winning (and closer) Golden Chip?

It’s when the four characters come together in the well-paced final section of the novel that the best laid plans of the each stakeholder in the truth process come unstuck.

“The families of the victims have started to reclaim their dead and forgotten loved ones and given this brief moment of public restoration, they parade to the chamber carrying portraits of their murdered relatives and candles that gutter in the wind tunnel of a street ... But there is no elegy played out in the increasingly elaborate rituals that grief has created, only a fractious, bitter stirring of the water to which people rush with earnest hope of healing.”

The book asks questions about truth. What it is? And at what price?

Democracy and devolved government has a value that the state feels is greater than one family’s quest for truth about teenager’s Connor Walshe’s disappearance and fate. They can pressure the vulnerable commissioner, while the IRA have no wish to muddy the reputation of the minister for Children and Culture and can arrange for someone else to take the rap. The Police Federation can offer to help coach a former officer to tell the bare truth and nothing but the bare truth. And as long as everyone is seen to have told the truth, the amnesty will apply and no witness will have to suffer for their abbreviated truth.

But like water through the underground walls of a Grand Designs’ basement, the truth has a way of finding its way through artificial barriers.

I wonder after a period of conflict, so physical and visceral, whether mere words and verbal explanation would actually bring closure to the questions, hurts and injustices of the past?

And would the wholesale participation and involvement of the conflict’s original players not so undermine their current reputations and livelihoods that the amnesty from prosecution would not even begin to cover the trouble and suffering they’d bring on themselves by revealing their part in the dark deeds of the past?

Resetting the scales to tilt back in the favour of the victims and their families is an admirable objective, but fulsome participation is unlikely when the social consequences are taken into consideration?

It’s a great book. A book of this time and of this place. Available in bookshops already, The Truth Commissioner is being launched in The Linen Hall Library tomorrow night. Well worth reading for the story, as well as the ideas we’ll be encountering over the next couple of years. And a big thank you to AiB blog-reader David Park who volunteered to send me a copy quite out of the blue.

(Check out John Self's review over at the 2008 Irish Blog Awards shortlisted The Asylum blog.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A superb account Alan, and you've expressed the definite appeal of the local elements in a way that I didn't. I wouldn't want to put off anyone outside NI from reading it though, as I think on purely literary terms (if there is such a thing, divorced from the here and now) it's a great book anyway. I'll be very disappointed if it doesn't at least make some prize shortlists.