Saturday, April 07, 2018

Cal by Bernard Maclaverty

Some writers you are aware of, but somehow pass you by, and then, for some reason, they come back into focus. A writer friend mentioned she was riveted by a novel by the Northern Irish writer Bernard Maclaverty, and I'd just picked up a copy of his "Cal", a 1983 novel about the Troubles, that was also made into a film featuring a young Helen Mirren.

The eponymous Cal is the son of the only Catholic man still staying on a particular street in the mid 1970s. His father has found him a job in the abatoir where he works himself, but Cal lasted a week. He is a typical troubled teen. Growing his hair long, interested in girls, subsisting on the dole, and strumming his guitar in his bedroom as he works out how he is going to get out. The Troubles are at a high point. There is a reference at one point to (the still unsolved) 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. The neo-Marxist struggle has become less political and more brutal. A bored or unlucky Cal has found himself the driver helping out a friend, and this has drawn him into to a local, somewhat incompetent terror cell. He stayed in the car whilst a man was killed in his own home.

Their family - him and his father only - are stubbornly resistant against the sectarianism of the time but it coming ever closer. Warnings are followed by the inevitable, a petrol bomb through the door burning their house down. Cal, meanwhile has encountered the new woman working in the library, a slightly older Catholic woman with a child. He finds out she is called Marcella, and freezes, for their can't be that many Marcellas around - that was the name of the widow of the man who was killed whilst he was driver. This secret - this stain - hangs over the novel. He has asked for an "out" from the cell he was drawn into, but of course, there is no way "out", once you are involved. He is hardly a man, and yet his life is virtually over.

In a short, but compelling tale, he shows he's willing to be a hard worker and ends up getting a job on a local farm. The woman who owns the farm and her husband are pretestants, they are also Marcella's step parents. In this claustrophobic world Cal begins to find himself, in a more rural area, away from the killings. Yet it is never that far away. Later in the novel, an explosiion in a field indicates where some local bombers have incompetently blown up a cow. Yet if these moments suggest comedy, there's little of that in the novel - rather there's a more compelling lyricism. A simple, perhaps contrived story, is told with wonderful constraint and stealth by Maclaverty. All the characters are morally compromised - by their faith, by their experience - yet there is a desire to live through even these terrible times, to live, and yes, to love. Marcella has an Italian background. Slowly Cal gets closer to her. But each step closer makes it worse for he cannot tell her that he was there when her husband got killed.

After their house is bombed his father goes to stay with a relative, and falls into a terrible decline, as if the house - the obstinacy of keeping it going despite everything - was the thing that remained for him. Whilst Cal starts living in an abandoned out house on the farm. When he is found out it almost loses him his job (and more importantly: his anonymity - as he has told nobody where he is). He is allowed to continue there and it provides a proximity to Marcella he had hoped for but couldn't expect. He makes a move on her that she hasn't expected, as she is still living a shadow of her former life, and both of them - outcasts in different ways - find love and companionship, but of a kind that is already doomed.

Towards the end of the book the impossibility of Cal's situation becomes clearer. He encounters his old pal and accomplice, and finds himself drawn back in withouth wanting to be. The choice is now his - to go along with the cause, or to betray it. He sees why once you are involved you can never not be. He makes his choice and waits for whatever fate will impact on him.

Maclaverty had moved from Ireland to Scotland in the mid-1970s, and its a book which combines experience with distance. If its a moral tale, like the Troubles themselves, its a tale without a moral absolutism, despite everyone's willingness to subscribe to one: the church, the cause, love. All are compromised by the guns, and by the mutual distrust and hatred. In amongst this, the old ways, where people of different faiths worked together if they had a personal connection, becomes harder and harder to sustain.

By coincidence I re-watched "The Long Good Friday" last weekend. This too also touches on the Troubles. A 1980 gangster movie, with Bob Hoskyns as the London Mr. Big who is trying to go legit by buying up the docklands and using American money to invest in plans for the 1988 Olympic site, the "Good Friday" of the title sees everything unravel because of a deal gone wrong which has seen one of his guys skim some money from the IRA and kill several of their men. A tale of local authority and police corruption at the end of the seventies, the Irish angles seems anachronistic now, but of course is part of those times.

Cal is a novel that deserves to stand as one of the key stories for that period - a subtly rendered love story against a developing  political backdrop, that like all good stories emphasises the impact of large events on ordinary lives. The writing is exquisite, and he's a writer I look forward to investigating further.

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