You probably wouldn’t pick one of Northern Ireland’s best known poets, academic – and traditional music enthusiast to boot – to be the novelist to have translated the spirit of the internet into book form. In Shamrock Tea (2001) though Ciaran Carson has, in my humble view, done exactly that – and there’s not a hint of a computer, system-challenging hackers, or intriguing cyberpunks in evidence; instead the book revolves around the lives of the saints, Wittgenstein, Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, and a psychadelic brew made with Ireland’s national symbol. The Irish Times rightly described the book as ‘like stumbling on a worm hole that allows access, not to some new world, but to a more lucid, more colourful version of our own’.
Written in short chapters catalogued by colour pigmentation, the book lights onto one subject only to spring forth towards another – as close to hyperlinking as you can get on the printed page. It would be a recipe for disaster in the hands of a less assured storyteller (and to delve into what it means to tell a story, there’s no better place to start than Carson’s previous novel Fishing for Amber), because all this jumping requires rythmn and body. Leave an idea before it’s developed and things tend towards the reading of a nerve-frazzling journal written by an Attention Deficit Disorder sufferer. Stay too long and you lose momentum. It’s all about timing, knowing what to play, and what to leave out – and how the twain shall meet.
Without causing the ire of the publishers (the eminently reasonable people at Granta), let’s give an example – the entire first chapter:
Perhaps I will return one day to the world I first entered. For now, I wish to record something of it, if only to remind myself of what I am.
The first things I remember are the colours of my bedroom wallpaper, and their chalky taste under my fingernails. It would of course, be years before I learned what the shades were called, which leads me to my first paint-box. Hooker’s Green, Vermilion, Prussian Blue, Burnt Sienna: I knew stories must lie behind those names, and I resolved to discover them some day.
As I learned to speak, I understood that green was the colour of jealousy. But I did not know yet that Napoleon, on the isle of St Helena, was supposed to have died from breathing the fumes of his bedroom wallpaper, which was liberally tinted with the arsenic-laced pigment known as Emerald, or Paris Green; nor did I know that a green moon shone in the sky for weeks after Krakatoa disintegrated on 28 August 1883, the feast day of St Monica, mother of St. Augustine.
In the Confessions, Augustine speaks with awe of the vast cloisters of his memory, which is an immeasurable sanctuary for countless images of all kinds. Perplexed by time – since the present has no duration and past and future do not exist – he concludes that the measure of time must be memory; hence a long past is a long rememberance of the past.
In Church liturgy, which is a measure of time, green is the colour of hope, and the priest wears green vestments on the Sundays between Whitsuntide and Advent. When Nero, in his savage persecution of the Christians, had them sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs, he is reputed to have peered at the spectacle through a prism of green beryl, which has magnifying properties. Otherwise, green is the colour of the planet Venus, and therefore of love and fertility.
The Greeks thought green to be associated with Hermaphroditus, son of blue Hermes and yellow Aphrodite. Green is ambiguous. It is the colour of aliens, or of creatures who dwell in the underworld, as illustrated by the following legend:
On 20 July 1434, at the hour of tierce as told by the great Belfry of Bruges, in Flanders, two green-skinned twin children – a boy and a girl of about thirteen – materialized from a storm-grating in the town square, clotehd in garments of what appeared to be frogskin. They were dripping wet. Crying bitterly, they were brought to the nearby house of Arnolfini, a respected Italian merchant. Questioning them in various languages and dialects, he found they responded well to Attic Greek. In their land, they said, it was always twilight. It was called St. Martin’s Land: that saint was much revered there, since he had descended from the upper world and made them Christians. Yesterday they had been tending their flocks of dragons and had followed them into a cave. They heard a sound of distant bells, in which they discerned the voices of angels calling to them. Led by the voices, they had climbed up a flight of steps roughly hewn in the rock, to emerge into a brilliant light.
The children were baptized. It was quickly establisehd that they would eat no food save beans, and after several weeks of this diet their green hue noticeably diminished. Shortly afterwards, the boy died. The girl who was somewhat wanton, lived long as a servant to the Arnolfini househol. There is no further record of her fate; but it was noted, and remembered by the people of Bruge, that the day on which the green children had first come into this world was the feast of St Margaret of Antioch.
In a book that uses the language of painting so much, it’s appropriate to talk of shades. I recognise a smidgeon of Flann O’Brien (indeed, as the narrator is telling us about Napoleon, I almost expect his uncle to enter and ask if he’s thought of getting a job), a playful stroke of Sterne, and a New World tint of Vonnegut. All these shades, though, are wrapped up in a distinctive voice that makes the novel read like no other (or at least no-other by an author other than Carson – his other work shares a similar DNA).