A MAN WAKES UP ON A BUS and cannot remember his name or how he got there. When he speaks, his voice, baritone and stuttering, comes as a surprise to him. A duffle bag above his seat contains some clothes, a pack of cigarettes, and a scrap of paper indicating an appointment at an auction house, so he learns that he smokes and has a destination. The bus deposits the passenger in an Irish town, where sheer instinct carries him to the auctioneer’s address. She hands him keys and a lease, so he learns his name and assumes ownership of a chipper in Clonmel. For the drifting amnesiac protagonist of Kevin Barry’s short story “See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown,” published in his debut collection There Are Little Kingdoms (2007), everything in Ireland seems “familiar but odd, as if the streets were running into the wrong streets, as if the hills were wrong, and the sky at a crooked slant.” Gradually, the drifter assumes the identity collected from stray clues, moved by an uncanny sense of habit to order his usual at the pub and to sing karaoke versions of songs he apparently knows by heart. Even as memory hauls up a violent past, he feels comfortable imitating himself, “utterly alive with entrepreneurial swagger.” If the tracksuit and key ring fit, wear ‘em. To stride into the future you needn’t remember the past, just exist in what it has left you.
Kevin Barry’s new novel, City of Bohane, takes place in the future. In this, it is almost unique in the history of Irish literature, which has generally confined itself to mirroring the perpetually traumatic present, or attempting to resuscitate the dead. To be sure, Ireland has a strong line in fantastic travels and the exploration of invented worlds – from Swift’s Lilliput to Beckett’s strange dystopian rooms – but aside from Robert Cromie’s pioneering A Plunge into Space (1890), Lord Dunsany’s influential fantasy stories, and Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935) there is no longstanding native tradition of prognosis or projection. You need an industrial revolution to dream up utopias of technological progress or to warn of development’s dangers; you need a settled past to feel at home in the day-to-day, not a torn record of colonial erasures and abortive revolts. Time may spiral or gyre in Irish lit, but it rarely moves confidently into the distance. City of Bohane is set in 2053, in the “once great and cosmopolitan city” that Barry has invented, placed on the island’s western edge, and made his main character – a city that also feels “familiar but odd.” Bohane is a cutthroat warren of sparring gangs and sinister alleyways, a hybrid place full of warriors and wastrels that can still, for all the infighting, speak with a collective “we” that constantly gauges its own bad moods: “Bohane could be a tricky read. It has the name of an insular and contrary place, and certainly, we are given to bouts of rage and hilarity, which makes us unpredictable.” As in his earlier short story, Barry enters the dim coming days by yoking nostalgia and amnesia into a tricky palm-spit handshake of an alliance. The city pines for past glories and fingers its scars (“the long-gone days when Bohane would have won All-Irelands”; “Long gone in Bohane the days of the discos”), but the narrator conceives of the past only as “the lost time.”...read more