Tuesday, 14 October 2014

COMMENTARY: 'PEELING ORANGES' BY JAMES LAWLESS


The central character Derek, around whom Peeling Oranges  is built, is reading yellowing letters from his mother, a heroine of revolutionary Ireland, to the man Derek thinks is his father, then in post-Civil War in Madrid:
‘…an initially neat hand succumbing to a spidery scrawl. A gush of words, impatient for ink, flying in many directions, trying to find something to stab. Written in Irish, Accent marks land randomly, surprising letters not used to stress.’

 We in England might think we share a history with Ireland. But in reading this absorbing novel I understand again what I always suspected: it is not the same history. As I read on, it dawned on me that we have more in common with the French, our fellow world Imperialists. Only the different languages divide us,


       Yet we think we share a language with the Irish. In fact we donated this English language to the Irish by force and they cleverly imported into it elements of their own and –as we know from the eminent writers in English emerging from that tradition -  transformed it into a thing of music and beauty.

 The theme of language is a strong undercurrent in this novel – almost a character in itself. English is the tongue of the oppressors and yet is universally if unwillingly used. Derek is scolded by Sinead for not speaking to her in Irish. Irish words and names (and Spanish words and names …) are scattered through the novel like a teasing code for the reader. 
        I was interested to learn that the Irish language was used as a diplomatic code to thwart the English who, during World War Two, had broken the Enigma Code but in four hundred years had never bothered to learn Irish and had even punished children for speaking it. This was especially important during and after the Spanish Civil war when Ireland officially recognised the Franco regime. believing that this gave Ireland a separate identity and and international recognition. This also made way for the declaration of Irish neutrality in the Second World War.
         Patrick, an Irish Diplomat at the court of General Franco in Madrid, is the clearest and most unambiguous character in this novel. We hear his voice through his letters and diaries, and get to know him through a visit the young Derek makes to Madrid and Barcelona.
        
In Peeling Oranges we move in time from the 30s to the 60s  when the revolutionary war had moved to the North of Ireland and the IRA and its heroes and heroines are still bedded in a narrative that goes back four hundred years.  This is symbolised in the persisting theme of oranges in this novel – eating, peeling them at home, picking them in Spain – the theme eventually echoed in the bitter taste of the Orange marches in Belfast.

So far, so much information and insight. This might too much to take in, if it were not for the fascinating narrative at its centre, where Derek, the lonely, neglected son of a Revolutionary heroine, and in love with such a girl of his own generation, struggles within a confusing mix of identity, history, psychology and nationhood to discover just who he is as an individual.

Derek is confused. His mother, once beautiful, is now old, becoming senile. She continues her life- long habit of being cold, cruel and rejecting towards him. Then he begins to read his father Patrick’s diaries and papers. So Derek begins to create an image of an unhappy man, madly in love with Derek’s mother, the Irish revolutionary heroine. Then there is the IRA hero lurking in the shadows of his life. And then there is the girl Sinaed - clever, committed and brave, determined to match her heroism to that of Derek’s mother.
            But Derek is tentative, not made of such heroic stuff. He struggles in the matrix of his parents’ history, hating the English, honouring the Irish and trying to become his own self. In the process he is driven unwillingly to kill and to witness the maiming of one close to him.

This novel is a fluid mass of symbolism, ideas, opinions and historical insights held together with literary efficiency by Derek’s tentative journey through his parents’ pasts into his own present. Effectively an orphan of the Revolution, he moves on just into the post-revolutionary phase of an Ireland not secured by rusty chains to the skirts of England, but emerging into the a-historical materialist world as an independent nation in the European Community.

On the cover: ‘A book to lose oneself in. Highly recommended.’ Gabriel Byrne

I certainly lost myself in it. It is a great read. 

Highly recommended. w.









2 comments:

  1. Thank you, Wendy for an insightful commentary on my novel Peeling Oranges.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The article is very useful, familiar greeting from our institute study course “ KAMPUNG INGGRIS PARE ”.

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