Almost every novel carries dust-jacket endorsements from the writer’s friends or the book’s admirers (not always the same). Most readers tend to be leery of blurbs, but Colm Tóibín’s for “The Dirty Dust” hooked me immediately: “The greatest novel to be written in the Irish language, and among the best books to come out of Ireland in the twentieth century.” John Banville describes it as “a modern masterpiece,” while the scholars Seamus Deane and Brian Ó Conchubhair add their praise for Alan Titley’s truly dazzling English translation. All four emphasize author Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s humor, speed and never-flagging linguistic energy.
According to Titley’s introduction, the past century produced roughly 300 novels written in Irish (sometimes incorrectly called Gaelic, a term now restricted to the traditional language of Scotland). If American readers know any of them, it is almost certainly Flann O’Brien’s hilarious “The Poor Mouth,” the “bad story about the hard life” of Bonaparte O’Coonassa, born into poverty among the sheep and pigs and potatoes. O’Brien, better known for his English-language journalism and fiction, was once described by S.J. Perelman as “the best comic writer I can think of.”Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-1970) — who only wrote in Irish — must be counted a close rival, though more demotically vulgar, and even more Joycean. The Citizen and Molly Bloom would fit right into “The Dirty Dust.”
Like O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman” or Edgar Lee Masters’s “Spoon River Anthology,” Ó Cadhain’s 1949 novel is a posthumous fantasy: All its characters are dead. The book consists entirely of the gabble and complaints of those buried in a village cemetery. Since talk is all the dead can do, they — being Irish — let fly with abandon. The racket opens when the newly buried Caitriona Paudeen “awakens” in her grave and discovers that the cemetery resembles a crowded pub on Saturday night, with everyone rabbiting on about their former aches and pains, the local gossip, one pitiful daydream after another. In fact, Ó Cadhain’s text consists entirely of monologues and bits of conversation. Since the speakers aren’t identified, it takes a while to figure out who’s who.
But this isn’t a novel one reads for the plot, so to speak. It’s all about the language. Caitriona, we learn, was a lovely corpse: “You were as clean and smooth as if they had ironed you out on the bed.” This compliment doesn’t prevent her from constantly bad-mouthing her sister Nell, grousing about her son Patrick, who promised her a cross of Connemara marble, and grilling every new arrival about what’s been happening lately “above ground.” But then, each of the dead has some crotchet or obsession. A schoolmaster, riven with jealousy, learns of his widow’s infatuation with Billy the Postman. Two soccer fans argue, and will doubtless argue forever, about who won the Kerry-Galway match of 1941. One character recalls drinking 42 pints in a single night, apparently the proudest achievement of his life. Still another old duffer goes on and on about the heart problems that led to his death. Caitriona, who hates with a fine, Rabelaisian excess, flatly contends that her son’s mother-in-law, Toejam Nora, “wouldn’t know the difference between the ABC and a plague of fleas in her armpit.”
When, early on, the interred decide to hold an election, party affiliations grow bitterly divided among those buried in the pound, 15-shilling and half-guinea graves. Peter the Publican is a leading candidate, and he starts to slander his rival as a secret drunkard. Another group claims the bar owner was always diluting the whiskey:
“I’m telling you, you were. Myself and Fireside Tom went into you one Friday after drawing the pension. This was before the war. Whiskey was flowing like tap water everywhere. As soon as you knew that Tom was pissed, you started on at him about women:
“ ‘Isn’t it a crying shame that you wouldn’t get married, Tom,’ you said, ‘a man like you with a nice bit of land . . . ’
“ ‘You never said a truer word,’ Tom says. ‘You may as well hand over the daughter now.’ ”
In fact, Peter the Publican’s daughter is his Lorelei, enticing customers into his establishment, then flirting brazenly just to keep them drinking:
“I was home on holidays from England. I had sixty hard-earned pounds down in my pocket. Your daughter lured me into the parlour. She sat on my lap. Something was slipped into my drink. When I woke up from my stupor I had nothing at all in the whole wide world except two shillings and a few miserable half pennies.”
True? It’s hard to tell since squabbling and backbiting are the sole pleasure, and chief torment, of the afterlife. Shouting matches erupt over which is worse — to have a son married to a French woman, an Italian, a black or a Jew. Of a possible beau named Blotchy Brian, Caitriona roundly declares, “I wouldn’t marry him even if I had to borrow the shawl from Nell and stand out in front of everyone in the middle of the fair.” Isn’t that neatly said, whatever it actually means? Unfortunately, the dead favor so many colorful obscenities that it’s hard to quote long passages in a family newspaper. But here’s the schoolmaster on the despised Billy the Postman, who has been laid up and is now riddled with bedsores:
“I hope he lies and never rises! I hope he gets the thirty-seven diseases of the Ark! I hope all his tubes get glutted and his bunghole stuffed! That he gets a clubfoot and a twisted gut! The Ulster flies! The yellow bellies! The plague of Lazarus! Job’s jitters! Swine snots! Lock arse! Drippy disease, flatulent farts, wobbly warbles, wriggly wireworm. . . . May he get the death rattle of Slimwaist Big Bum! The decrepit diseases of the Hag of Beare! May he be blinded without a glimmer and be gouged like Oisin after that! The Itch of the Women of the Prophet! His knees explode! His rump redden with rubenescence! Be lanced by lice!”
Caitriona — the book’s main character — can be equally imaginative in the enunciation of the hatreds and jealousies that make her want to “burst.” Still, Ó Caidhain does give her a few sweet memories:
“I never really peeped into the Earl’s place without a flutter in my heart. I always thought I would see something miraculous. The Earl and his Lady having descended on their wings from heaven after their dinner. Either that, or St. Peter accompanying them to a table underneath a shady bower; he was carrying a net, having fished on the Earl’s Lake; and in it a big golden salmon; his great keys rattling away; and then, he opening his Big Book and inquiring of the Earl which of the people of the district should be allowed into heaven.”
Heaven? Perhaps for the Earl and his Lady. But for Caitriona and the poor of Ireland there is no heaven, only the endless and all-too-human cacophony of “the dirty dust.”
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.