Thomas (James Bonner) Flanagan Denis Donoghue - Essay

Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first chapters of [The Year of the French] deal with conditions leading up to the [French invasion of Ireland in 1798]…. These chapters are recited by an impersonal narrator, the voice of history uttering its disinterested truth. Most of the later events are conveyed from different points of view and in suitably different styles. In certain chapters we hear the voice of history not in complete impersonality but as it yields itself to a particular character…. Still other chapters narrate the events through fictitious documents, such as An Impartial Narrative of What Passed at Killala in the Summer of 1798, by Arthur Vincent Broome, the local Protestant minister in the novel.

These devices make for variety in a long novel: the several points of view keep the reader sensitive to the proportions of ignorance and knowledge in any account of an experience. Another effect is that the characters and events in the novel are held at a certain distance, as if to prevent the reader from having only an immediate relation to them; he is to see them not only as they were but as they have become. I imagine, too, that Flanagan was reluctant to produce his characters when they had nothing to show for themselves but their bewilderment: he chose to let them stay in the shadow until they had come to understand the various forms of darkness in which they had lived.

I assume that this is what it means for Flanagan to be a historical novelist. Every event, every character, has a dual existence in which past and present are diversely engaged. The reader is not gripped by the events as they occur; his concern is drawn to the events as they have occurred and to the stain of outrage and desolation they have left upon the people who suffered them. Mostly we come upon the events when their form and consequence have already been assessed. There is a loss of immediacy, our interest is not allowed to fasten upon a character as distinct from his role in the story as a whole.

But there is a gain in the depth and resonance of the characters; when we meet them, they have already been changed by their experience. Broome, for instance, is given to us not when he is in the throes of his suffering but when he has survived it; his tone of bewildered care shows that he has been transformed, driven far beyond the range of qualities he would have produced as the local Protestant minister in a peaceful town. We are interested in him mainly for what he has been through, and for the generosity of his vision, flawed as it is…. Each event is seen not only in its immediate light but in the light of the idea it embodied or humiliated: the mediations issue from Flanagan's sense of modern Irish history, the shapes it has taken in his mind.

It is my impression that Flanagan organized the novel in this way not chiefly for the pleasure of managing several viewpoints and styles but to ensure that the conflicts of class, religion, tradition, and self-interest would be disclosed and interrogated. Impartiality is achieved by admitting to the narrative several different forms of partiality. If, as Walter Benjamin remarked, history is invariably recited in favor of those who have won, Flanagan is alert to...

(The entire section is 1328 words.)