Friday, November 10, 2006

Powerful prose - 'Memoir' John McGahern's last book

I described earlier how much I appreciated McGahern's 'That they may face the rising sun'. Now, having read 'Memoir' it is possible to comprehend and appreciate the seminal childhood experiences from which his writing emerges. For me, he summed up what it was like growing up in his Ireland when he says:

'In that country [Ireland], individual thought and speech were discouraged. Its moral climate can be glimpsed in the warning catch phrases: a shut mouth catches no flies; think what you say but don't say what you think; the less you say, the more you'll hear. By 1950, against the whole spirit of the 1916 Proclaimation, the State had become a theocracy in all but name. The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand. Women and single men were in a lower scale on the public services, a higher scale was in place for married men. The breaking of pelvic bones took place during difficult births in hospitals because it was thought to be more in conformity with Catholic teaching than Caesarian section........ People did not live in Ireland then. They lived in small intense communities,which often varied greatly in spirit and character over the course of even a few miles.' (p.210).

If one needs it, his experience provides a powerful, personal rationale for the separation of powers - of church and state.

We benefit immensely from his capacity to rise above his experience, generate such prose and to conclude:

'Through work and reading and reflection I had come to separate morals and religion, to see morals as simply our relationship with other people and the creatures of the earth and air, and religion as our relationship with our total environment, the all that surrounds our little lives. I had come to see the story of Jesus as a story among other sacred stories that sought to explain and make palatable the inexplicable.' (p.222)

As I read I wondered what the book evoked for my colleague John, who grew up in a similar Ireland and, as with McGahern, lost a Sue, whom he loved dearly, to breast cancer.

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