The Language Question

Discussing a book in translation is a perilous business. When that book is an excoriating assault on language ignorance and misperception, we must tread ever so warily: we are beyond the pale without a paddle. Yet Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht (1941) (The Poor Mouth – an accent is sadly missing on the e of Beal here) deserves to be read and known beyond the small circle of those with enough Irish to appreciate it. Patrick Power’s vigorous 1973 translation, available from HarperCollins with wonderfully damp and smudged ink illustrations from Ralph Steadman which only deepen the book’s atmosphere of rain and squalor, is a masterpiece of assimilation, requiring surprisingly few notes to explain the kind of language in-jokes in which O’Brien delighted and which (with comic overcrowding) populate the book.

Our narrator, born with the unlikely name of Bonaparte O’Coonassa, emerges (with fine emotional Gaelic speech) into a West of Ireland of exaggerated poverty and exposure, its inhabitants perversely delighting in their dismal situation: ‘One afternoon I was reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them)…’. In fact, they behave as the books and politicians would have them behave: admiring the stark beauty of the countryside, bewailing (I almost said bewaeling) their miserable fate but not thinking to put up a shed to house the cows and sheep and pigs that fight and copulate and smell out the house. The brutality of outsiders is not minimized: reciting his long heritage at school Bonaparte, ‘son of Michaelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas’s Sarah […]’ is struck down and told he is ‘Jams O’Donnell’; later, imprisoned for twenty-nine years, he is cruelly heartened by the no doubt mistaken belief he has at last found his father, a man who also has been taught to identify himself as Jams O’Donnell. But exposing such ludicrous harshness of naming cuts many ways: the arrival of Gaelic enthusiasts to the west brings with them a plethora of adopted names of half-understood Irish: ‘The Sod of Turf’, ‘The Temperate Munsterman’, ‘The Dative Case’, ‘The Gluttonous Rabbit’ and even ‘Yours respectfully’ – the name ‘The Branchy Tree’ providing a nod to the pseudonym of Douglas Hyde, founding President of the Gaelic League and later President of Ireland, the architect of the language revival which provides O’Brien with his chief target.

As usual with O’Brien, it is difficult to find an assumption or orthodoxy not satirized: he takes Swiftian pleasure in exposing everyone and everything: the absurdities of language revivalists, including those zealous preservers of the language who mistakenly record pigs with gramophones believing them to be speaking the finest (i.e. most difficult) Irish, the inhumane dismissals of English-speakers, the ignorance, superstition, and helplessness of the (fictional) peasantry, the exaggerated misery of first-person narratives in Irish now vastly popular (‘in one way or another, life was passing us by and we were suffering misery, sometimes having a potato and at other times having nothing in our mouths but sweet words of Gaelic’), and thus the unthinking audience for these monstrosities, and the idea of appealing to any abstraction embodying Ireland (later satirized in his newspaper columns by the appearance of ‘The Plain People of Ireland’). Really anyone that tells us to think anything, and we for allowing them, are attacked; but with savage wit rather than indignation. Hence the complex ironies of this speech opening the Grand Feis of Corkadoragha, from the President, one ‘Gaelic Daisy’, who builds into an ecstatic self-fulfilling eulogy of the whole notion of speaking Gaelic in the Gaeltacht:

– Gaels! he said, it delights my Gaelic heart to be here today speaking Gaelic wiht you at this Gaelic feis in the centre of the Gaeltacht. May I state that I am a Gael. I’m Galeic from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet – Gaelic front and back, above and below. Likewise, you are all truly Gaelic. We are all Gaelic Gaels of Gaelic lineage. He who is Gaelic will be Gaelic evermore. I myself have spoken not a word except Gaelic since the day I was born – just like you – and every sentence I’ve ever uttered has been on the subject of Gaelic. […] He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language. I hereby declare this feis to be Gaelically open! Up the Gaels! Long live the Gaelic tongue!

Saying something is so, even in Gaelic, doesn’t make it so. The usual blackly comic tone shifts, here as elsewhere, into a kind of relish in the absurd possibilities of language and action. O’Brien’s puns and games and tones of voice and rhetoric do seem to delight in the craft of manipulating words. More and more it seems the freedom, the anarchy the artist in language makes possible is surreptitiously but implacably asserted. On all sides of the language divide pieties are demolished, and one would think mutual understanding was being urged. And yet the book works through the comic possibilities of mutual incomprehension: the individual and his prejudiced and unteachable understanding is finally its hero. O’Brien knew well that language created power, but rarely final authority; in this gap he conducted his guerrilla war.

Above all, of course, the book is ruthlessly funny, and this must be its recommendation. This utter lack of ruth in the humour persists. After the opening of the feis, and another earnest speech in Gaelic wondering if anyone at all is really in earnest about Gaelic we are told ‘not only one fine oration followed this one but eight. Many Gaels collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening while one fellow died most Gaelically in the midst of the assembly. Yes! we had a great day of oratory in Corkadoragha that day!’. As in his better-known At-Swim-Two-Birds (1939), that spectacular double-helix of modernist self-consciousness, O’Brien remorsely satirizes the urge, the need of us all to talk, to speak, to write, and at length. Yet it was an urge he deeply understood: despite never producing the string of exceptional novels his early promise predicted, he fought off the distractions of employment and drink to labour for years at his caustic and occasionally brilliant Irish Times daily newspaper column (in Irish and, increasingly, in English) ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’. And, for all he might have accomplished, having The Poor Mouth in English is not a poor substitute.

Flann O’Brien, An Beal Bocht. 1941. The Poor Mouth. 1973. trans. Patrick C. Power. London: HarperCollins, 1988, 1993. 128pp., £7.99.

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~ by thebicyclops on July 4, 2008.

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