Bernard Mac Laverty Francis King - Essay

Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Significantly, Bernard MacLaverty's [Cal] opens with the words: 'He stood at the back gateway of the abattoir …' The North Ireland here depicted is itself a giant abattoir; and just as the hero, the eponymous Cal, has given up his job as an animal slaughterer, so too he wants to opt out of the human slaughter in which, press-ganged by a former school-friend, he has ineluctably become involved. Unfortunately, it is easier to quit the abattoir than to quit the Cause. As one of his associates ominously tells him: 'If you're not part of the solution, then you become part of the problem.'…

Mr MacLaverty describes the sad, straitened, passionate lives of his characters with tremendously moving skill. The image of animals brutally maimed or slaughtered persists throughout the book. A mine, intended for humans, blows a cow in two, spattering with blood the rest of the herd, which, wholly unconcerned, continues with its grazing. Wishing to hurt the woman whom he loves, Cal insists, after she has cooked him a meal of costelette di vitello, on telling her how vets deal with unborn calves: 'They cut them up with cheese-wire. The vet puts cheese-wire inside the cow and cuts them up before they are born. Then they get born in bits.' Similarly, the passage implies, anyone born in Northern Ireland is also 'born in bits'. Wholeness is impossible. This terrible sense of predestination—merely by being a Roman Catholic, Cal can no more escape from his fate than an ox from the killing pen in the abattoir—persists throughout the novel. Yet co-existent with this world of bombing, shooting, fire-raising and knee-capping, there is the banale world of public-library, dance-hall and boozer, just as the slaughterers in the abattoir, among them Cal's father, smoke cigarettes and chat to each other while carrying out their grisly tasks.

Francis King, "Born in Bits," in The Spectator, Vol. 250, No. 8066, February 12, 1983, p. 21.∗