Down and out in Dublin and Poland
Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner…
Balancing its outward perspective with an interrogatory approach to the secrets hidden in the human heart and mind, the fifteen stories of Aiden O’Reilly’s very fine debut offer the reader a series of candid dispatches from a changing Europe. It is a volume defined by a sense of unease. The characters here are linked by their incredulity towards official narratives; belief in any “central source of validation” is forever beyond their reach. They are stateless not simply in their wanderings but in their unsettled mentalities.
In his opening pieces, O’Reilly depicts a generation of young people drifting across the continent. His protagonists are decoupled from family and nation and live their lives through chance encounters, drunken hook-ups, and missed connections. Yes they suffer disappointments but, at heart, they are optimistic creatures of agency. Youth emboldens them. They make decisions and they follow them through.
As a reformed mathematician, O’Reilly has a clear affinity for puzzles which colours many of the stories here. The interactions between his men and women play out like games for which we must intuit the rules as they progress. Fragmentary pieces like ‘Contempt’ encourage participatory reading. Greetings, Hero is thus a book which rewards attention as much as it demands it.
This is especially true of the collection’s inventive middle offerings. In ‘Roman Empires’ one encounters a belief that the “malicious influence of the Romans continues unabated, as strong as ever it was”. Indeed, some people even want the Empire to come back. It is a short but intriguing examination of history as, at best practical eccentricity, at worst, aggressive “lies and propaganda”. It is also the most Murakami-esque of the stories here (flavoured with a dash of Philip K. Dick’s late insistence on the secret continuance of the Roman Empire’s power).
Another standout begins, “They have taken my parents to the re-education camp”. The mother and father in question are relics of a religious age buttressed by corporal punishment and homophobia; they hold ideas which “offend us all”. It is a pointed conceit yet, given the story’s length, it does not wear out its welcome. ‘Self-Assembly’ meanwhile tackles – in a very literal fashion – the question of women being seen as objects by men. The slippery reality of the story perturbs the reader in a manner which has its closest analogue among contemporary Irish short fiction in Mike McCormack’s scrutiny of the relationship between philosophy and technology.
Yet it is in the long central novella, from which the collection as a whole draws its title, that O’Reilly’s overarching project is at its clearest. Its protagonist is an English tutor at a small Polish university negotiating bars, bureaucracy, and the challenges of international friendship. The story has a strong immersive quality in its first half while in its second, which focuses on a return to Dublin, it combines this with an astute depiction of multi-cultural life in a Celtic Tiger Ireland of “fat bastard businessmen”.
Winding through all of this is the enigmatic presence of “Silent Michal”. In his search for a way to express himself, Michal serves as the totem figure for O’Reilly’s cast. All are seeking better ways to articulate who they are. The barriers they face are emotional, are economic, but more than anything they are linguistic. They reveal Greetings, Hero as a book about modes of expression, about how they can be changed by money or by love. After all, it is surely no accident that the final story here is titled ‘Words Spoken’. Readers seeking fresh, prickly fiction should therefore listen closely.
Other posts you may enjoy:
- ‘Like a hand on the Shoulder…’: My Irish Examiner review of John McGahern’s reissued Collected Stories.
- ‘Plugging into the Future’: My Irish Examiner review of Mike McCormack’s story collection Forensic Songs.