The Truth Commissioner
David Park's sixth novel is essential reading for Irish book lovers
Visiting Belfast in 2007, head of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Archbishop Desmond Tutu accepted an honorary doctorate for distinction in public service. At the Queen’s University ceremony, Senator George Mitchell spoke of Tutu’s message of peace, saying that ‘his has been a life of service to, and for, humanity.'
In David Park’s sixth novel, head of the imagined Northern Irish Truth and Reconciliation Commission Henry Stanfield returns to Belfast. Looking at the city and the task before him, there’s one image that he nurtures, that of ‘an old manged, flea-inspected dog returning to inspect its own sick.'
Following four characters, The Truth Commissioner explores what a South African-style Commission in Northern Ireland might reveal, and how the resurrection of insidious stories from an ambiguous past might not yield communal healing in the present.
The Truth Commissioner couldn’t be more timely. May 8 marks one year since the procession of the latest Northern Irish Assembly, when the world saw the pictures of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams laughing together. Tony Blair and Peter Hain were pictured on Stormont’s leather sofas chuckling alongside the reconciled Irish enemies, snapped in front of bookcases so new as to have nothing on their shelves.
The legal proceedings that draw newly-elected Stormont Minister Francis Gilroy, retired police officer James Fenton, and young NI ex-pat Danny to the centre of Belfast and into the maw of a world they would prefer to have left behind. The case of 15-year-old Connor Walshe, missing since the height of the conflict, threatens to destroy the foundation of the whole enquiry, as well as the lives of those involved. Park’s reminder of the forgotten, the human, is a brave move in the current-day climate of official optimism.
The novel exerts a thriller's grip. By closely studying the characters’ lives and their relationship to the past, Park successfully exploits the dramatic potential in the uncertainty of current-day Northern Ireland. With eloquence, questions of morality and the universal concept of truth are examined. With the divergent strands of the characters’ relationships in locations as far apart as Florida and Romania, The Truth Commissioner creates a space in which internal, domestic, and international perspectives are contrasted.
Stanfield works amongst citizens he despises, for people he hates. He despairs that his daughter has cut him from her life and actually chosen to live in Northern Ireland, amongst petty people and a benighted, newly-installed bureaucracy.
Francis Gilroy, the revolutionary-turned-politician, is initially more interested in gamesmanship than community values. The tension he experiences in the Northern Irish Assembly borders on paranoia. The building is a place where conversations are conducted with full knowledge of bugs and surveillance, where the politicians ‘watch what is said with their eyes’. Gilroy is a fine composite of contemporary political shortcomings, wrestling too with uncertainty over his daughter’s marriage to an Englishman and his own, apparently ailing, health.
Stormont is also a place that confers legitimacy and honour. Gilroy feels the weight of history in the halls but is reluctant to have his portrait painted. He questions his legacy, believing that if he were to write a book he would ‘be damned for the truth, and damned for what he left out.'
The psychological acuity of Park’s writing has been proven in his five preceeding books, most notably in Swallowing The Sun and The Big Snow. Here the tensions are amplified by revelations that threaten to indict anyone involved in commission’s enquiries. The play-by-play manoeuvring of retired RUC officer James Fenton and the younger, active serviceman Alec explodes in a scene set on Slieve Donard:
‘‘Let me get this right,’ Fenton insists, his anger bursting open so that his words hammer home like hailstones. ‘They took the badge, they took the name, any kind of respect that was owed, and now they want to take the truth and twist it into whatever shape they think suits them best?’
‘It’s hard to grasp,’ Alec says. ‘I don’t claim to fully understand it but it’s got to do with protecting the institutions, safeguarding the future. With bringing people inside the system and making sure they stay there. Trying to build something better than we had in the past.’
‘You believe that?’’
Still, the characters’ conduct and psychology say more than the conversation and dialogue. All four men find themselves bound as much by silence as by circumstance, and by deceit enacted in the name of truth. All are written with white-hot vivacity and in Danny, Park has created a plum role for Colin Farrell should a film of The Truth Commissioner ever be made.
Moments of despairing, good-natured humour lighten story’s tension, poking fun while catching a snapshot of men who hardly know themselves in suits. As Minister for Children and Culture, Gilroy feels he should read some books, ‘on the quiet’. Wearily tackling poetry at dawn, he is interrupted by his wife and ‘throws the book into the briefcase as if he has been caught reading pornography’.
His gang cruise the streets of Belfast in a chauffeur-driven car, jostling with the banter of the Ant Hill Mob. Belfast remains, though, a city where a quotation from Larkin is more likely to be attributed to James than Philip.
Stanfield’s outlook on the city is bleak. He sees little more than a modern-day wasteland, an accurate assessment in contrast to the slick photos and PR campaigns currently funded to present the city on the global stage, as a modern, progressive urban centre brimming with opportunity. On Belfast’s much vaunted, upcoming ‘Titanic Quarter’:
‘And already they are talking of restoring this place in the city’s favourite passion of self-consoling mythology. It will, no doubt, be a giant theme park where they will build a facsimile of the great ship, construct hotels and exhibitions, hope to bring in the tourists from Japan, from America, from everywhere, for an exclusively virtual experience. It saddens Stanfield to think of the vulgarity that will be unleashed, they way he imagines this place will become the equivalent of some casino town in the Nevada desert.'
The story is riddled with symbols that appear and disappear, marks that fade, things once solid melting into air. People vanish into the night, into mist, voices trail. Connor Walshe is remembered as a ghost even when alive, and the prose captures the importance of the ever-passing present. The urgent passage of time is conveyed with a level of detail that leaves scarce room for relaxation, as when Gilroy gets his hands on a good cup of tea:
‘The tea is hot and strong the way he likes it and in a decent-sized mug and not one of those china cups at Stormont which don’t hold a spit and feel as if they might crack in your hand. He sets the mug down carefully to avoid putting it on the papers then takes a book out of the front of his briefcase.'
An accelerated narrative shifts into gear as a clearer picture of Walshe’s fate emerges, with potential ramifications packed into almost every sentence. Fenton seeks reconciliation with his past by driving orphanage supplies to eastern Europe, and the wider and more sinister implications of corruption are explored there. The Romanian connection has been touched upon by lesser NI writers, but none have explored the links with Park’s humility and clarity. When questioning political compromises in Northern Ireland and abroad, though, his writing is loyal only to poetry.
Corresponding structures in the novel allow wider themes to breathe, such as the conflict between home and flight, or the potential price that children pay for the actions that precede them. Fenton and his wife haven’t been able to bear children, whereas in the US Danny is on the verge of fatherhood but faces the prospect of having that life stolen from him.
Even with such high-calibre characters, readers might be left wanting elaboration on the industrious Romanian orphan Florian, the fate of Danny’s pregnant bride-to-be Ramona, or the Walshe family’s final reaction. It seems misguided, however, to seek neat conclusions in a novel that highlights the difficulty or impossibility of conclusive truth.
The over-arching urgency of The Truth Commissioner keeps the story rolling, but more might have been made of the contrast between rural Northern Ireland and the eastern European landscape, or the implied corruption amidst the bureaucratic snowstorms of developing nation-states. The initial heat, too, of repeated phrases like ‘the quick of [a character’s] being’ or ‘stemming and staunching the flow [of emotion]’ may cool on the re-readings that the book warrants.
What makes The Truth Commissioner a good book is the strength of its story and the vigour with which the tale unfolds. Although the fiction engages with regional contemporary circumstances, the characters’ desires and dilemmas are universal. Every aspect of the novel that follows is finely conceived and impeccably executed.
What makes the novel important is the examination of contemporary Northern Ireland’s lessons, and their extraction from the confines of the local. The trans-national elements of the story elevate the book’s perspective to the international sphere, and its opposition towards misguided bureaucratic quests in complicated matters of history, conflict and resolution suggest the value of an unaffiliated, everyday practice of demonstrable morality.
In this 40th anniversary year of the beginning of the Troubles, a raft of books on Northern Ireland and its figures are going into publication, or being revised and reprinted. In The Truth Commissioner, David Park offers an exquisitely-written and honest account of the personal and political junctions at which everybody, at some time, stands.
The Truth Commissioner (Bloomsbury) is available now.