First published in England in 1989, John Banville’s eighth work of fiction is noteworthy for a number of reasons. It is his most commercially successful work, in terms of both sales and awards—it received the inaugural G.P.A. Prize of fifty thousand pounds in Ireland in 1989 and was a runner-up for the Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. It has received more favorable critical attention than the rest of Banville’s work combined. In addition, it is an excellent overall introduction not only to a novelist who almost single- handedly has revolutionized the fictional tradition of his native Ireland but also to one of the most fascinating and resourceful writers of contemporary fiction.
Virtually all Banville’s considerable novelistic powers are on display in The Book of Evidence. His playful and cunning stylistic distinctiveness, his command of atmosphere, his acute and winning sense of light and space are all deployed with an unerring and impressive touch. On the conceptual level, Banville reverses his approach to his concerns. Previously, his protagonists typically strove for coherence either of identity or, failing that, of the cosmos. Here, however, the protagonist implicitly rejects any conception of integrity, moral or otherwise. Such an approach draws attention to the preoccupations of Banville’s earlier works while presenting them more accessibly.
Among those preoccupations are a concern for both the realistic and illusory nature of subjective experience; for the potentially distorting effect of, yet understandable human hunger for, idealization; for the relationship between fiction and truth; and, from a strictly formal standpoint, for the reflexive character of the novel. These concerns are located in a closer approximation to an identifiable present—consisting of a recognizable period and a given social reality—than has been typical of Banville’s fiction hitherto. This author’s best-known works in this country have been two noteworthy historical romances, Doctor Copernicus (1976) and Kepler (1981). In The Book of Evidence, however; Banville has come so close to contemporary Irish reality that it has been thought the murder that constitutes the novel’s central event—and more particularly, perhaps, the arrest of the perpetrator in the home of a well-known lawyer who has been harboring him—bears more than a passing resemblance to a notorious case in Ireland in the early 1980’s involving a murderer and the then attorney general of Ireland.
Banville is too skillful and subtle a novelist, however, to draw more than tantalizing parallels between his plot and the case in question. The ambition of The Book of Evidence, and an appreciation of Banville’s provocative thought, is more readily available from a contemplation of the space between the parallels and from the experience of being tantalized than it is from the assumption that the novel is in any way indebted to sensational headlines. Nevertheless, there is a deliberately sensationalist element about this novel, attributable in large measure to the obviously gratuitous nature of its pivotal violent episode. The nature of that episode is deftly amplified by the intermittent mention in passing of muffled explosions, heard from a distance, which recalls for the reader the arbitrary, murderous presence of violence in contemporary Ireland.
The gratuitousness of the novel’s violence can be perceived from two perspectives. First, Freddy recounts the murder in graphic and virtually exhaustive detail, sparing neither the reader nor himself from the almost purposeless brutality of his actions. Second, the murder itself has been entirely unplanned, occurs spontaneously, and is only tangentially related, from the standpoint of narrative, to such considerations as motive and plot. The victim is entirely innocent, and in a grotesque sense which the subjectively based narrative implies, the perpetrator is innocent as well. Freddy, without indulging in special pleading, is at pains to point out that his crime is the result of a momentary, if not entirely unexpected, loss of control, rather than the manifestation of conscious evil. It is only by his commitment to narrative, however—fitful and arbitrarily organized as his book of evidence might be—that Freddy slowly comes to realize that he is not entitled to his innocence. The freedom of choice that has governed his erratic career up to the point of the crime, and of which the murder is the ultimate expression, culminates with imprisonment if not used responsibly. The illusion, or fiction, that one may style oneself innocent is one that Freddy cannot be allowed to sustain. The reality that the world is a place of others, a landscape of differences, unaware of and in all likelihood indifferent to the subjective imperative, is brought home to Freddy in his cell and is embodied in his book. By means of a paradox typical of Banville, the author’s fiction becomes the medium of his protagonist’s truth.
That Freddy is in need of a binary view of his existential presence and of the fact that he is part of the scheme of things is suggested early in his adult career. A brilliant mathematician by training, he arbitrarily rejects academic life at Berkeley and sets sail for Europe with his wife and child. A succession of implausible and squalid deals with shady locals in southern Spain leads quickly—and to Freddy’s surprise—to his being...