Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Kennedy" by Desmond Hogan (2012-in Best European Fiction 2012)

March 1 to April 28

Cruelty, Murder, Travellers and Dandies in
"Kennedy" by Desmond Hogan

"By turning to violence, to murder, they create a history, the create a style for themselves.  They become ikons as ancient as Calvary" from "Kennedy"

"Disguise is part of the psychology of the dandy, who wants to wear his sunglasses even though there is no glare.  Being released from any mental restraint, he can be utterly free and accordingly infinitely cruel".  from The Face of Another by Kobe Abe 

"For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. . Think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the important works of art of the 20th century, that is, art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter. . . . Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human - in short, another valid sensibility -- is being revealed."  "Notes on Camp" by Susan Sontag.

"In a recent personal statement relating to the inclusion of his story ‘Kennedy’ in Best European Fiction 2012, Hogan declared his writing “is an attempt to describe people without country, without family, who are themselves.” At a Stinging Fly showcase reading in which Hogan read (as part of Dalkey Book Festival, 15 June 2012), Irish poet Dave Lordan introduced Hogan as “one of the most important writers” in Ireland and referred to him as an “archivist of the underdog.” In describing the voiceless, essentially Hogan’s writing performs what Victor Shklovsky famously assigned to art in “Art as Technique” whereby it
“exists that one may recover the sensation of life…the technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’.”   Shauna Gilligan 

"Kennedy" (appearing in Best European Fiction 2012) can take us deeply into the importance of the work of Hogan.  One of the reasons I used quotes from Kobe Abe, a Japanese master of the literature of cruelty and Susan Sontag, whose world of extreme refinement and culture was very far from that of the people in "Kennedy" is to get people to see that Hogan is very much an inter-textual writer, whose work is squarely in very old deep literary traditions.  Everyone of his stories has historical echoes.  

I do not plan to explicate the plot of this story.  What I want to do is to look at all the incidents of violence and cruelty and to talk about an insight I think I have gained into the  Hogan stories I have read by reading a recent article on travelers in Irish culture.  This might be a longish somewhat rambling post but I hope those into Hogan will read it and let me know their thoughts.  

Here are some of the incidents of violence and cruelty in "Kennedy"-

It opens with a 19 year old Limerick boy being forced to dig his own grave prior to being murdered because gangsters thought he was a police informer.  He is wearing a shirt with attack helicopters on it, tools of imperialism used for terrorizing civilian populations.  We hear he is murdered.  We then are reminded that Saint Sebastian was found murdered in a sewer, just like the boy from Limerick probably will be.  We are reminded of the story from the bible of Nebuchadnezzar having three men flung into a furnace because they will not bow before a golden image of him.  From this we have an image of Christ being tortured by Roman soldiers.  We begin to wonder, is the Limerick boy, clearly a petty criminal really Jesus or perhaps it is the other way a round.   I do not think in the religious and classical mythology images Hogan often uses he is suggesting the marginalized people in his story are like ancient Greek heroes or even Jesus but rather he is suggesting these figure were in fact like thugs, boys with wasted lives, he is somehow saying power and masculinity resides in cruelty and government power rests in murder.    He is not canonizing the Limerick boy at all.  

From here we hear a boy in jail say he would rather be in Auschwitz than a Limerick jail.  We learn he was molested sexually by Black as well as Polish guards.  We need to maybe stop a second and ask why do the guards have the ethnic identity they do?  Is it somehow symbolic of the invasion some would say destruction of Irish culture by outsiders, just as the Romans destroyed many cultures.  

Going on (and all this in under 15 pages) we hear of Jehovah's Witnesses attacked by a mob as a priest cheered on.  We meet a man whose face looks like it was kicked in by a stallion.  We learn of the incredible cruelty of The Christian brothers whose schools have a reputations as places were boys are sexually molested by the brothers.  We learn of a man killed when a statue of a Greek boxer from classical days falls on him.  We are given an account of brutality in prison and molestation at an industrial school.  

All of the government institutions allegedly meant to help people really foster violence and are run by sadists and homosexual rapists.  

I think this story is somehow saying we need to overturn these institutions, we need to stop wearing attack helicopter T-shirts made by slave laborers somewhere in the third world.   

On another topic, but one closely related to the issues of violence, I have spoken about a good bit, that of why the narrator often mingles with Travellers and often does in fact have sex with young traveller men.  I should note there is little joy in these couplings, it is just relief and the will to power.  Recently I read a very interesting article in a new online journal about Irish culture, Breac:  A Digital Journal of Irish Culure, "Erotic Deterrotorializations in the the Traveller Fiction of Liam O'Flaherty and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne"  by Adam Lawrence that helped me to understand this a bit.  Everything is beginning to come  together, you have to see that the narrator in the stories is often a Dandy (see my post here for why this is so important).  You have to understand what Shuana Gilligan is talking about when she talks about how homelessness is one of the basic themes  of Hogan, the Dandy is a hero without a culture in which his heroism matters.  These stories also develop themes that go deep into western culture, that of masculinity and how it always has to be defined against women and non-masculine males.  This is part of why there is so much male on male eroticism in Hogan's stories.  It is why the encounters are joyless.  the stories are also about how culture and societies  come from murder and cruelty.  Hogan is using his often beautiful images to force us to see this, this is in part why his stories are not straightforward narrations.  Some of the truths in these stories cannot be told in school, you have to figure them out for yourself.  This is also tied in with all of the not taught in school references in his stories, things some autodidact might know but the school masters won't.  Here is what Lawrence basically says about the role of travellers as figures in Irish literature and society that relate direclty to the stories of Hogan and what I have wondered about what we are to make of the use of Travellers in the stories and why the narrator has sex with so many of them, with him always as the active participant.  Lawrence says on the one hand Traveller men seem hyper-masculine, very into bare knuckle boxing, wild horses and living a seemingly free life style.  Also Travellers historically married very young, starting at about 14.  This in a culture where the average marriage age is higher than most first world countries and in a culture where sex outside of marriage was very much a sin.  This meant that Travellers were somehow a sub-group the Irish fixated on sexually.  A fourteen year old Traveller boy or girl was often married and sexually experienced 10 years earlier than many non-travellers.  On the other hand, Travelers were viewed as rootless, near criminals, with no sense of responsibility so on this hand they were viewed as not having masculine characteristics, somehow the traveller men, especially the younger ones seemed liked they were almost like loose women so why not take them sexually if you want. So Traveller men were seen both as hyper-masculine and as effeminate and childish.  Thus Irish masculinity, which stands in for the western culture (that is another reason for all the cultural references in the stories of Hogan) defines itself in contrast to Travellers.  This is much as the English once defined themselves in contrast to the Irish (Declan Kiberd, Franz Fanon and Edward Said helped me understand this) just as white Americans in the old south defined themselves in contrast to African Americans.  In one of the questions I have asked almost all those who have done Q and A sessions I talked about how the English viewed the Irish as very skilled at telling stories, preforming, writing poetry and such while seeing them as inferior and barbaric and I asked people if this is an accurate perception.  I also think in a sense the Traveller is the  stage Irishman for the Irish, and I think this is part of why Hogan uses him so much.  He is trying to get people to see the beam in their own eye.  

There are lots of other wonderful points to ponder and images to marvel at in this story.  The Dandy is a identified as a camp figure by many, rightly so, but is also central to the modern literature of cruelty and anguish.  The dandy roasts his hot dog on his jeweled walking stick in the fire of Nebuchadnezzar and revels in the garbage dumps in the back alleys of Dublin.    

I see the short stories of Hogan as world class cultural treasures.  I know I have made assertions in this post that some may not agree with or even take offense at which is OK it just means we care deeply about what we read.  

Author Data

Desmond Hogan was born in Ballinasloe, East Galway, in December 1950 and currently lives in south-west Ireland. He has published five novels: The Ikon Maker (1976), The Leaves on Grey (1980), A Curious Street (1984), A New Shirt (1986) and A Farewell to Prague (1995), as well as four books of stories: The Diamonds at the Bottom of the Sea (1979), Children of Lir (1981), The Mourning Thief (1987) and Lebanon Lodge (1988), published in the USA in 1989 under the title A Link with the River. His travel writings, The Edge of the City, appeared in 1993. In 1971 he won the Hennessy Award, and in 1977 the Rooney Prize for Literature. He won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1980 and was awarded a DAAD Fellowship in Berlin in 1991. In 1989 he was writer-in-residence at the University of Alabama, and in 1997 taught at the University of California, San Diego.

Larks' Eggs and Other Stories by Desmond Hogan can be purchased from Lilliput Press, the premier publisher of quality Irish Literature and history.

Mel u

1 comment:

shaunag said...

Interesting post, Mel and some good connections made with the Lawrence article in Breac. However, I think part of what you are flagging is something around authorial intention - something which one cannot know (and often, which the author might not consciously know).
I would be reluctant to classify or pin down a writer such as Hogan to the erotic elements because of the broad range of themes and subtexts in his work.
Neither am I convinced that there is a particular message in this story. Rather, Hogan seems, to me, to be simply (or complexly) painting pictures: it is as it is. What we - the reader - make of it and what it is (fiction / reality and that relationship) is up to us.
I wonder if your original approach to his work as “found treasures” rather than “message givers” is more in line with the pictures he paints with his stories – social, personal, universal - themselves “found treasures”?