Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Silver's City - Maurice Leitch
This is the second Maurice Leitch novel that I've read after The Eggman's Apprentice, which was good enough to have me coming back for more. Silver's City, which won the 1981 Whitbread Prize seemed like a good bet and although I didn't enjoy it quite as much as The Eggman's Apprentice I will certainly be reading more.
Silver's City is a grim thriller set in the early days of the 'Troubles'. Silver Steele is a high profile prisoner who fired the first shot in the Troubles and his name is spelt out across the walls of Loyalist Belfast. Ten years of prison have changed Silver. Military discipline, reading and solitary thinking mean that the man who is busted out is far different form the young man who went in. Even more striking is the difference between what the city was and what it has become. "It began to seem like a crazy planet out there, beyond the chicken wire, with politicians roaring on, off, hot and cold, ordinary people in the grip of violent and unreasonable action for its own sake."
The books epigram, from St Augustine, gives a sense that the territory we are entering here will not be a green and pleasant land:
"The Devil hath established
His cities in the North"
The opening scene makes this even more clear as we follow the clearly unstable Galloway and two others(Duff and Tweed) who are driving through a quiet prosperous Belfast suburb. Inside the houses are "happy families" but in the car there is fear. Duff and Tweed fear Galloway, and with good reason it seems. He holds "fancies" "of a daytime rampage through such quiet reaches". After Galloway shoots their target, a doctor, in front of his child, he scans the windows of neighbouring houses, "searching for a target" "in that firing stance" Tweed had "only ever seen in films before." He clearly gets something from the killings, something that has little or nothing to do with politics.
We move from the assassination to "Bonner, William; although strangers all know him now as Billy, because of the easy intimacy of television." He is a politician "who stood for law and order, a phrase he repeated with sinister, yet reassuring, effect." The sinister undertones to his "law and order" have the face of the assassins we have met earlier: "the man who had been executed earlier" "had been executed on his order." Immediately we learn that it "was a token assassination for the young turks."Power, it seems, is far from absolute and many forces are in an unsteady equilibrium.
This unsteady equilibrium is not just external but internal too. Each of the main characters is attracted to wielding control and some form of power but also to letting go. Galloway in particular seems about to fall apart. During the operation to bust Silver out "He felt he had been directing something too intently. Now all he wanted was to take his hands off the controls momentarily to see what would happen." He also begins to fear Silver - "Galloway felt the threat to his authority. He couldn't explain it, but it was there, nonetheless, in the air, like a smell, invisible, yet apparent to all."
After Silver is busted from hospital and brought to Bonner he is at sea. A dying man, he is used to the structure and discipline of prison life. Outside, he is less free, at the beck and call of men who don't seem to know how to use him or if it would be better to kill him. He has had what counts as blasphemous thoughts in prison, becoming an "intellectual", perhaps even "a Red"..
Sexual violence is also a part of this world and the roots of terror are shown to drink deep in the water of vice. The shady leaves above grow alongside the fairways of power. Galloway, Bonner and Silver all have little more than bit parts in their own tragedies. Escape is an idea that has had its day.
This would be a good primer for anyone trying to get a handle on the forces that tore, and still tear, at the fabric of society in Northern Ireland. A superior slice of highbrow pulp.