Ronan Bennett and The Irish Question Abroad

Martin Mooney considers the work of one of Belfast's most controversial writers

In recent weeks the Observer has been publishing in serial form a new novel by one of the most critically acclaimed and controversial of Northern Irish writers, the novelist and screenwriter Ronan Bennett.

Zugzwang, taking its title from an enforced bad move in a game of chess, is set in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, and in its early chapters already shows Bennett ringing the changes on, and clarifying, his recurrent themes.

Zugzwang’s hero, Dr Otto Spethmann, is an amateur chess player and fervent admirer of the greats of the game, many of whom have gathered in the capital for the 1914 St Petersburg tournament. Spethmann is also a psychoanalyst, but the anxieties and dreads of his patients – who include one of the competitors – seem to be mirrored in the increasing paranoia and violence of the city around them. Spethmann himself seems implicated in a series of inexplicable yet clearly political murders being investigated by one Inspector Lychev, an unprepossessing detective who by the second chapter has instilled great unease in the good doctor.

Bennett’s last novel, 2004’s Havoc, in its Third Year, won the 2005 Hughes and Hughes/Sunday Independent Irish Novel of the Year Award, and was on the ‘long-list’ for the 2004 Mann Booker Prize. Again the novel’s Irish connections are oblique, its setting the England of the interregnum, and its subjects – the trauma of civil war, religious extremism, and the personal costs of violence, schism and dissent – sufficiently distanced from the present to form almost a magic realist commentary on recent history.

Critics of Ronan Bennett’s work for television and the cinema – most notably Hamburg Cell, dealing with the 11 September hijackers, and Rebel Heart , an account of the period following the Easter Rising – have often raised issues of bias and balance, calling into question the west Belfast-born novelist and scriptwriter’s impartiality. Then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, in particular, challenged both Bennett and the BBC over 2001’s Rebel Heart and its portrayal of the War of Independence. To Bennett’s British conservative and Northern Irish unionist critics, his imprisonment in Long Kesh, as a schoolboy, and his conviction for (attempted) escape, indelibly mark the writer as an apologist for Irish republicanism.

But this simplistic – and in itself biased – response to Bennet’s work (for screen rather than page) fails to note how Bennett’s writings, in fiction and drama, are admirably unconstrained by any over-determination by the Irish situation. Rather, they often approach matters of violence by and against the state at a deliberate distance from any Irish setting.

1997’s Face, starring Robert Carlyle, tells the story of a London career criminal disillusioned with the leftism of his youth and family background. The film’s striking workers and truncheoned demos are more than a mere backdrop for the violent heist-gone-wrong storyline – the criminal’s near-fatal efforts to retrieve the heist’s proceeds from corrupt policemen is a distorted reflection both of the socialist struggle and of the love story at the heart of the plot.

Ronan Bennett also published three novels in the 1990s – The Second Prison (1991), Overthrown by Strangers (1992) and The Catastrophist (1993). The last-named was short-listed for the 1998 Whitbread Novel Award. Its love story (‘an erotic tragedy,’ in the words of one interviewer) between an Irish writer and an Italian journalist is set in and shaped by the independence struggle in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s.

The impact of historic forces on human lives and hearts, the individual cost of the struggle against the state, and the shapes that struggle (and that state) may take. The distancing historically and geographically from Bennett’s native Belfast is a political manoeuvre – imperialism is as multi-faceted as the individuals and the communities that confront it or are maimed by it – but it is also an aesthetic strategy, a way of maintaining the balance (or tension) between political and personal stories. In an interview Bennett says that he set The Catastrophist in the Congo because ‘I wanted to explore the role of the writer in a politically polarized society. I knew I didn’t want to set it in Ireland because I wanted it to have a wider resonance.’

The publication of Zugzwang in serial form, as well as its historical setting and its near-archetypal characters, brings home to the reader more clearly than ever that Bennett is a Conradian, for whom political themes must be expressed through personal and psychological journeys, but for whom the personal and the psychological can never be extricated from the larger historical narratives of their times. In this, as in much else, his is a unique voice in Northern Irish fiction.