Northern Ireland: and the morality of hidden force

Irish Pages Magazine

The latest issue of the excellent Irish Pages (a kind of Granta from Belfast) begins with a great quote from Elliot: “As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his whole life for nothing”. The adage is appropriate to more than the singular vocation of the poet or the literary writer.Politics too consists of a strange balance between the short term certainty of the manifesto and the uncertain value of a single political life, in which even the ballot box (or worse) is not the final arbiter. At the end of the politician’s day, questions abound: Did he/she do good? And what did it all mean? What were the implications? And even, was it worth it? But it’s a longer view that often gets lost amongst the ‘skewered logorrhoea of Internet keywords’.

One of the articles is by Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson who deftly probes the disturbing moral ambiguity of Northern Ireland’s ‘transition’ from war to peace, in which “bad things happen” apparently without agency. When a brand (personal, political or otherwise) is messed up, it only takes a short while to adjust, move on to the next phase or, as in the case of one East Belfast estate agent, re-brand and let ‘bad’ history be forgotten.

He turns to a short (very short) story by Jorge Luis Borges. It is self consciously derived from the work of Franz Kafka; which was recently treated by Danny Morrison to describe the arbitrary actions of the British state under the internment legislation of August 1971.

Now in Northern Ireland, Patterson speculates, there is more than one hidden controling interest or “company”, but their machinations are just as inscrutable as the one in the book. In ancient Babylon the lottery, unusually, pours benefits and punishments in the direction of its (willing and unwilling) citizens in an unspoken and apparently arbitrary way. According to Borges, the lottery derives moral force from its unique capacity to punish rather than simply appealing to the hopes of its willing participants:

Someone tried something new: including among the list of lucky numbers a few unlucky draws. This innovation meant that those who bought those numbered rectangles now had a twofold chance: they might win a sum of money or they might be required to pay a fine–sometimes a considerable one. As one might expect, that small risk (for every thirty “good” numbers there was one ill-omened one) piqued the public’s interest. Babylonians flocked to buy tickets. The man who bought none was considered a pusillanimous wretch, a man with no spirit of adventure. In time, this justified contempt found a second target: not just the man who didn’t play, but also the man who lost and paid the fine. The Company (as it was now beginning to be known) had to protect the interest of the winners, who could not be paid their prizes unless the pot contained almost the entire amount of the fines. A lawsuit was filed against the losers: the judge sentenced them to pay the original fine, plus court costs, or spend a number of days in jail. In order to thwart the Company, they all chose jail. From that gauntlet thrown down by a few men sprang the Company’s omnipotence–its ecclesiastical, metaphysical force.

In the end, the Lottery infests the communal and social values of Babylonian life so subliminally that people begin to wonder if the Company even exists.

Incredibly, there was talk of favoritism, of corruption. With its customary discretion, the Company did not reply directly; instead, it scrawled its brief argument in the rubble of a mask factory. This apologia is now numbered among the sacred Scriptures. It pointed out, doctrinally, that the Lottery is an interpolation of chance into the order of the universe, and observed that to accept errors is to strengthen chance, not contravene it. It also noted that those lions, that sacred squatting-place, though not disavowed by the Company (which reserved the right to consult them), functioned with no official guarantee.

And of the Company: liminal in character; unremittingly real in its outworkings:

…there is nothing so tainted with fiction as the history of the Company…. A paleographic document, unearthed at a certain temple, may come from yesterday’s drawing or from a drawing that took place centuries ago. No book is published without some discrepancy between each of the edition’s copies. Scribes take a secret oath to omit, interpolate, alter. Indirect falsehood is also practiced.

Patterson closes with a quote from another of Borges’ short stories, The Immortal: “We accept reality easily, perhaps because we suspect nothing is real”.

In a year in which murders, disappearances, evictions and bank robberies have all happened in Northern Ireland apparently without agency, it is not hard to imagine that Borges’ cruel and arbitrary world has indeed come to Belfast, with a vengence.

More later on Patricia Craig’s Rannafast Summer. Irish Pages is available in good bookshops, or through Easons Wholesale (+ 353 18622111) or Central Books in London.