‘Tragic’ was always one of those easy-to-reach for words used to describe Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’. It managed to avoid picking sides, and recognised that things were more complicated on the ground than the simple catholic vs protestant / irish vs british equations. Not such a bad thing, but more often than not it was also used as an embarassed sideshuffle to simply avoid expressing an opinion – the simultansous turning of the cheek and a blind eye.
Bernard McLaverty’s superb 1983 novel Cal is tragic in a more thoughtful and traditional sense. This is a thoroughly engaged novel that lays brutal facts on the table – it demands of the reader a conclusion while providing no simple answer.
Cal is a young catholic who lives with his father in a once-mixed neighbourhood where they’re a heartbeat away from being burnt out by a sectarian mob. Long haired, he spends much of his time in his room listening to records and strumming an air-guitar – if he were somewhere else his story would be so different. Instead, he has become caught up with the local IRA, acting as the driver during an ‘operation’ which sees a reserve policeman gunned down on his doorstep. Things are complicated further when he finds himself falling in love with the policeman’s widow.
In the hands of someone else this could have become a wolfe-tones song – crude, pornographically focussed on the suffering of one community, and subtle as a sledgehammer. Instead, this is a book about agency. Cal is the protagonist of the book, and one for whom the reader – at least this one – has sympathy, but those brutal physical laws of fiction – character determines action, and action reveals character – constantly leave him in a bad light. His spirit is troubled and his flesh is weak, but McLaverty while closing avenues of opportunity to his character with one hand, opens them with another. The novel hinges on the question of Cal’s guilt – not just in terms of the actual murder in which he was an active player, but also his drift towards the murdered man’s family.
In McLaverty’s skillful hands this young man’s complicated crush becomes, not just thanks to the setting, a Shakespearean tale of tragedy:
“He lay on his cushions with the smell of mildew in his nose and, thinking of her, he relieved the tautness in himself. The true hopelessness of his position came to himin the gloom that followed. He was in love with the one woman in the world who was forbidden him. He was suffering for something which could not exist. Apart from her age – what widwo would look at a long-haired boy ten years younger than herself – by his action he had outlawed himsel from her. She was an unattainable idea because he had helped kill her husband. And every one of his actions distanced him a little more – touching her in church, spying on her in her bathroom. He snorted a laugh. If toucher her thigh with the back of his hand in church was an extra inch between them then slaying her husband put him on the outer edge of the galaxy.”
As if this weren’t enough to recommend the book to you, consider this. I saw the film Cal back in the 1980s, and was moved by it. It was a film that, for various reasons, has stayed in my mind over the two decades since. A friend recently handed me Cal to read, and I immediately backed away given that I knew the story already – the story is only part of the beauty of this book. Luckily my friend insisted, and I read the short book one night, hooked into the early morning hours. You know your in the hands of a master when you can’t put down a book whose ending you already know (though there are some significant differences between the book and the film)!