The Pen Friend

John Gray reviews the latest novel from author Ciaran Carson

More than 20 years ago Gabriel, Head Keeper of Irish Art at a thinly disguised Ulster Museum, was deserted by his lover. Now a postcard arrives from her showing the Empire State building being struck by lightning and with the teasing message ‘It’s been a long time’. There is no address. It is the first of 13 postcards, each of which features oblique references to their past together. But the postmarks reveal her journey back towards Belfast.

It is a promising scenario. Who would not plunge back into recollection? Memory of that first chance meeting in the XL Cafe in Fountain Street when Gabriel guessed her name, Iris, except she is in fact called Nina. Gabriel is only mildly disconcerted by this deception, and wholly unquestioning about her role in MO2, a shadowy British intelligence operation.

Is Gabriel merely a recruit? There is more to it than that. She is wearing a Dinkie pen round her neck, and he is an obsessional pen collector. She collects perfume jars, though her collecting impulse is no match for his. As he writes necessarily unposted replies to her postcards, he switches from pen to pen, suiting his moods. In the past they had written to each other every day. He burnt her letters but recalls how writing fleetingly survived on the ash.

Now he seeks to follow up every lead suggested by the postcards, to classify the whole experience, and summon up ghosts. Gabriel’s autodidact father, who may well owe much to the author Ciaran Carson’s own father, apart from being an Irish language pioneer, is also an enthusiast for Esperanto, which idealistically sought to reduce the Babel of language to 900 universal root words. Gabriel gives us a splendid disquisition on its Irish history, and the related phenomenon of spiritualism, and in particular the role of the Goligher family in the early 1920’s, and the endeavour of a Mr Crawford to test their veracity. Crawford’s efforts, which seem to have included at least the bondage of a nubile young Goligher ended in his suicide. At one point the spiritualists used a room above the XL cafe. Now Gabriel dreams that he takes Nina there, though in a curiously passionless way.

One can see how Gabriel made a good keeper of art. He applies the same endless analysis and re-seeing of things to pictures. Gerry Dillon’s 'Yellow Bungalow' reminds him of Donegal holidays. Nina likes it too, but Gabriel understands its Catholic imagery, an influence that Dillon shares with Andy Warhol. In the same vein we learn that Sir John Lavery painted out the Virgin Mary in his 'The Daylight Raid from My Studio Window', July 7, 1917 because it was going to Belfast’s municipal art gallery. Gabriel admires Yves Klein’s modernist blue paintings partly because blue is his favourite colour as ‘an inclination of the liberated soul towards God’. His unsent letters now are an attempt to strike ‘the one blue note that might explain what you did’, that is her ‘inexplicable’ departure.

Much of this is illuminating, but, as Nina increasingly irritably put it at the time, ‘You picture this, you picture that, but it really hasn’t much to do with the real world, has it?’ In Dublin this intrudes in Hughie Falls, one time civil rights associate, now bitterly accusing Gabriel of being part of ‘the cultural wing of the British war machine’ and speaking ‘bad West Belfast Irish’, to which Gabriel responds in English, which makes Falls even angrier. Then Nina agrees that Gabriel is ‘a bit of a Castle Catholic’, and tells him that whether he is conscious of it or not he is a member of her MO2, apparently a complaint afflicting all members of the northern arts establishment. Of course MO2 turns out to be more sinister than this, and Nina’s guilt for what occurs may have precipitated her disappearance.

So how does it all work? There is a curious lack of real emotion at the centre of it. We find out everything about the perfumes that Nina wears, and her clothes are exhaustively catalogued, and yet there are few clues as to what really made the relationship tick.

Part of the problem may be that Gabriel’s recollections are delivered as memoir rather than flashback: there is too much ‘I said’ and ‘you said’ which has a distancing effect. Then again the problem may be that, as Gabriel himself recounts, ‘I no longer know the truth of what we were together’, or, as Nina said, he had turned her into ‘an icon… [but] it’s not me. It’s a kind of fake…’. This reminds us of an actual fake and another deception. Gabriel had bought an icon when they were together in Paris, convinced it was the real thing. She secretly knew it was a fake: the azure blue was in acrylic.