County Tyrone writer Francis Hagan mixes sci-fi elements and apocalyptic vision in his debut novel with almost Orwellian results, argues Joanne Savage
A part-dystopian, almost-sci-fi novel that remaps and recontextualises aspects of the Northern Irish conflict and the shady deals done in brokering our new dispensation, The Auditor is an inventive addition to the Ulster canon.
After reams of realist Troubles novels it is a breath of pure, clear air – at least for the way it imagines its fractious society as a pan-European, apocalyptic realm where corruption and prejudice are aptly visualised as problems relevant to the entire human condition rather than a localised, Ulster malaise.
Kristoff Mann is an accountant who knows his name is on a hitlist. Black and White Militants control the nameless city divided into Depots – Monitors and informants keep the gunmen sweet. Water levels are rising, threatening to engulf everything.
Kristoff lives in a constant state of paranoia and terror, unable to feel at ease with the compromises that have been made to balance the tensions of his futuristic society; terrorists are now in government and the heavy price paid by their victims seems to have been forgotten.
The notion of auditing is imagined in the novel as a tracking of the atrocities committed in securing a new administration: have the books been fairly balanced? Is 3000 dead an adequate price to have paid to secure the tranquillity of future generations?
The novel questions the ethics of a government peopled with those who were once trigger-happy, bristling at the message it seems to disseminate: if you were a terrorist and you turn over a new leaf, political power is achievable and all, seemingly, is forgiven – the slate wiped sparklingly clean.
The society Hagan imagines is heavy with surveillance and mathematical cataloguing. Company accounts are drawn up and businesses are liquidated; collusion and an elusive relationship to the truth prevails. Who is auditing the corruption and the double-dealing? Can victims expect to be reimbursed for their losses? Who can do that difficult, morally repugnant audit?
Though the imagined world is never geographically pin-pointed, it is
obvious that Hagan is using his vague metropolis to speak with freedom about the Northern Irish problem and the difficult situation we are landed with, where former gunmen are now in top political office.
Kristoff, the Auditor, isn’t content with the equations of murder and evasion that have led to truce: 'If these people are genuine in their renunciation of violence they would not be using a ceasefire as leverage to gain political power,' he tells his friend Johan. 'If they’re genuine about turning their backs on armed conflict… they would simply stand down and make way for peaceful, non-combatant people to form a government.'
The legacy of the Troubles is still the driving force in this vague, drowning city. It is somewhat disappointing that Hagan, with his futuristic imagination and clear talent for an elegant, almost Hemingway-style prose of quiet poetry, should return to that most worried-over of scenarios; the elements of sci-fi and Orwellian critique of society’s warped mechanisms could have been pushed more energetically and compellingly beyond the Ulster equation.
Nevertheless, this is an original and deft novel that combines parable with artful probing of socio-political contexts. The language is beautifully economical – each line counts – and things move with a continental flavour. Hagan is a wise and hugely talented writer who straddles genres and moods without ever losing his balance. There is no one else writing fiction in Northern Ireland today quite like him.