Photo: John Maher, Cordoba
A Short History of Darkness
Q: Where did the story behind A Short History of Darkness originate?
JM: It started in a Druze town, in the Western Galilee, when I was doing fieldwork for my doctoral thesis. One late afternoon, when a friend of mine was driving me out of the town to catch a train down on the coast, to Jerusalem, we drove past a woman in her late thirties or early forties. A very fine-looking woman, walking alone…all alone…
Q: A Druze woman?
JM: Yes. But dressed in a very random sort of way. I asked my friend who she was. He mentioned some family I didn’t know and whose name I have long since forgotten. She was unmarried and childless.
Q: And then?
JM: Well, without really thinking about it, I asked my friend: what is her future?
Q: And what did your friend say?
JM: He said, she is living with her mother. Her mother will die. Then she will go and live with her eldest brother and his wife. Then she will die. Khalas! (finished!)
Q: That sounds very final.
J.M It does. Her image remained rooted in my thoughts and when I flew back to Dublin, a few days later, I found I couldn’t shake her from my mind. A simple story began to form itself in my mind – a man torn between two women, a local woman and an exotic foreign woman (a physically dangerous relationship for both), and a search for a lost father.
Q: Taking place where and when?
JM: Roughly speaking, between a small town in Ireland and a Druze town in the Western Galilee. Between the present and the past. The past being the end of the British Mandate in Palestine, in the late forties, the establishment of the State of Israel and the Palestinian exodus from the Galilee.
Q: Without giving the game away, there is the story of a murder, in the Galilee at the heart of the novel. Is this based on anything historical?
JM: Only vaguely. I came across the tale of a decapitation during the troubled times of 1947-1948. It was the type of story you might stumble on during the recent troubles in Ireland or from the War of Independence or Civil War period. Almost anonymous, in a history book, but very, very personal, at a local level. I reimagined the story to involve the killing of a young Irish man in the British army in Palestine (an intelligence officer with a complex childhood).
Q: Is this your central character?
JM: Not really. The story really revolves around a former lecturer in a British university who has taken early retirement to live in a small town in Ireland, after a nervous breakdown. The past follows him, in his search for his father; the present follows him, in his search for love – or his attempts to sidestep it. He thinks he is looking for one thing when, in fact, he is looking for something else altogether.
Q: Where is the story located in Ireland?
JM: Roughly speaking, in the flatlands of southern Laois, old plantation land (Queen Mary, in the 16th century). Strips of good land interspersed with strips of bog. A place people drive through rather than to. The geographical tension in the story is between this part of the southern midlands of Ireland and the Western Galilee, with London as the crossroads, physically, politically and metaphorically. Dublin, as the local capital, scarcely exists. Years ago, when I went back and forth to London, in the seventies and eighties, I was always amused by the number of Irish people I met, particularly from the west of Ireland, who knew London intimately but could hardly find – and it didn’t bother them – the centre of Dublin. I always thought it reflected the reality of that duality: the great metropolis and the bog.
Q: And what about the Druze? Do you still retain contacts with that area?
JM: I do. I was very privileged to be helped in my doctoral research by a number of people there. I have given a couple of lectures on the Druze, in King’s College, London at SOAS. In terms of the Middle East, in Lebanon, Syria and Israel, they are a minority of a minority, the jam in the ethnic, religious and political sandwich, as they say. Their religion is a very discreet one and, unlike Judaism, Islam and Christianity, not open for scrutiny to outsiders. Religious Druze believe in a type of reincarnation wherein a dead person (very often a relative) may come back to life in the form of a newborn child. In a certain way, my character in the story can’t be whole until he has nailed down the true story of his father’s identity. The quest starts off up in the head – as almost an academic exercise – but, finally, ends in the heart, ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’, as Yeats had it.
Q: So, it all ends happily?
JM: I wouldn’t go so far as that. As the late John McGahern very wisely said, when asked why he didn’t write about happiness: ‘happiness is its own reward.’ If we spent our lives listening to happy songs or music in major keys, it would be a fairly shallow, half-lived life. You need the dark to show the light, if that’s not too perverse. On the other hand, too much darkness…