Blackbird Book Club: Carlo Gebler

Watch video of the author reading from his latest novel, The Dead Eight, at Queen's University

It was all Hallow’s Eve when Carlo Gebler came to Queen's University for the second in the 2011/12 Blackbird Book Club series. He made out to spook us: 'My despair is Biblical,' he declared. But in truth, he entranced us.

Gebler, like David Park, approaches the trick and treat of talking about his own work by recessing himself within a series of stories. And like Park, he bore witness (though through a sensibility bereft of or free of any kind of theological aspection), to the transformative influence of teachers.

In the case of Gebler, two teachers were of especial significance; the first, who taught him to become entranced by reading, and the second, who taught him causality. Both were women.

And, it is clear that these two forces have propelled his unique practice as a writer. He cited Geoffrey Hill who said that ‘writing is a machine for making you feel'. It is a provocative and perhaps uncomfortable formula. There is something a mite chilling about the trundling in of a machine across the fine tuned imagination of the writer.

But Mr Gebler reiterated this apparent paradox when he spoke of three elements: the inner ‘cinema screen’ of the imagination, the ability to make the reader feel and a classical clarity that causes that feeling to be felt.

Gebler spoke of the back story his latest novel, The Dead Eight. The title he acquired from his long experience working in the prison system. The ‘dead eight’ is the term used by initiates to describe the look and shape and effect of a gun barrel.

Gebler translates this into an entirely different context. The mysterious, raddling ‘insider’ quality of the title is borne out by a tale which questions the official version of an historical ‘fact’. As in The Cure, Gebler uses the sharply questioning attitude to history he learned from his Communist teacher to interrogate received beliefs, presented as facts.

Like Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibin and Colm McCann, Gebler is within that postmodernist tradition of Irish writing that combines a forensic attitude to the past with a deeply imaginative sensibility.

The ‘dramatic act’ of The Dead Eight occurs a long way into the novel. Why? Because, as Gebler explained, the inexorability of that act has to be established. Here we see his indebtedness to a 19th century model of fiction, especially, perhaps, Dickens. So we can see an historical training that demands causes.

But, there is something else. Why would we, as readers, care a hare about Moll or about the man convicted of murdering her were it not for the ‘back story’ that Gebler establishes. And this relies upon a whole series of ‘inner cinema screens’ where the author enables us to imagine Moll and all that is in the making of Moll, ancestrally. In that sense, Gebler is very much in the Irish tradition.

His background and the influences he has absorbed are cosmopolitan. But he declares himself Irish. His characters do not even attempt to speak in dialect, their concerns are totally different from the Great Debate of Tradition and Modernity, local versus metropolitan, duty versus desire, which assails the characters in, let us say, a novel by Edna O’Brien, Gebler's mother.

Gebler’s focus is both far more intimate and far more public. For the heart of this novel is the mismatch between the individual and the State. As Gebler put it, the sate is intent on serving its own interests.

There is, on one side, the marginalised, the innocent victim, and on the other, the professional political and judicial elite grasping at the obvious because the truth is too much bother. Crucially, in between lies an ancestry which includes a peerless old lady, a declared and an undeclared prostitute.

And Gebler, through his understated but often lyrical imagining, brings before us, the relatives we might not have wished for but who were, in the course of history, inevitable. As he quietly said, ‘the past shapes the present’. It seems to me, he proved his resonating case. And his plea for the Defence against the smooth roguery of the State is eloquent, understated, well argued and imaginatively invincible.

Gebler could have chosen to say he had no country, that he was stateless. Schooled in England, with a Czech-Bohemian father and a mother living the most of her life outside Ireland, now domiciled in Fermanagh, he has every historical reason to declare detachment. But, without demur, he calls himself Irish.

And I think that affords him every right to tell his story of Ireland. It is not O’Sullivan, with the greyhound embossed, printed in New York, and brought home by my Uncle Frank, and read, as a special treat to people who had been taught to forget their history. This is work for our time. Gebler gave us no tricks, but stories that are timeless, ghostly, entrancing, for the long nights after Samhain.