The United States is hardly the worst nation when it come to debt per GDP.
Friday, May 26
Monday, May 15
With aging comes loss, and for Tom Kettle the protagonist of Old God's Time by Sebastian Barry, life is essentially over. Retired as a policeman, he lives alone. His wife and two adult children are dead. Friends are few, though on good days, he has visions old friends, acquaintances and maybe even some ghosts.
Both he and his wife grew up with abuse from priests, notorious in Ireland’s Catholic orphanages. With his memory slipping, Kettle is an unreliable narrator both for himself and others. Pleasant memories, vague and dreamy like fog forming over the sea, are difficult to retain; negative ones prick deep and mean like sharp ice. The stories he recalls often seem incomplete, with additional circumstances and context shared later. He recalls his past with any activity, any trip: “Every single place… a peg with a memory hanging from it.” And when he returns to the city, “memories are lying in ambush everywhere.”
Like memories, his surroundings serve as both reminders and distractions. “If he were looking for citizenship, it might be of this miraculous bay. Child of nowhere, he could claim rights over this, this vast vacancy queerly filled, both empty and full. He was just an old policeman with a buckled heart, but if he had known how, he would have sucked the whole vista into himself, every grain of salt and sand and sea, swallowed it whole… All this blue and different blue and greens and acres of blown white, and the mysterious golds and silvers of after-rain. He knew he knew he was in trouble, he could sense the trouble with his copper’s instinct and didn’t yet know its shape, but the bay also released him somehow, let him go for a blessed minute into some wild freedom, so that his heart and soul were both shaken and renewed, in the same moment, in the same breath.”
After being away from the job, two colleagues from his station visit, claiming to need his help on an old case involving “the priests in the sixties.” Kettle, old and vulnerable, responds spontaneously: “The absolute suffering. There was no one to help me.” He immediately regrets using the word “me” rather than “them.” The old policeman cares about the child victims of the abusive priests, not quite realizing that the others regard him as suspect.
The investigators seek his DNA, intent on resolving an old case, the murder of a priest known to both Kettle and his wife. But Kettle had long been part of a system that masked scandals, covered evidence, to protect reputations.
Kettle varies between wanting to be useful and left alone, between companionship and solitude. Once the two leave, he misses his inquisitors: “he was stunned to discover, missed them like his own children, a huge ache of loss, which was not logical at all. They had a nice time together, despite everything, but that was all. But he felt it like a bereavement. He had enjoyed the talk. He had. A mystery. Their warmth and kindness. He wondered should he do more of it. Human contact. He wasn’t sure. It was a disturbing thought somehow, like he was betraying a secret, but whose?” Before long, he comes to realize that “He was less confused even if he was confused.”
The old policeman knows who killed the priest, but divulges nothing without manipulation or lies. Instead, he drifts among multiple tragic memories, some of the experiences surely instigated and compounded by his family's history of abuse. That a murder of a priest could take precedence over the systemic abuse of dozens or hundreds of children, by “a murderer of children’s hearts,” is deplorable. And that may partly explain why, besides his loneliness and dementia, Kettle initially fails to realize the purpose behind the visits from investigators.
The man could suffer no greater loss than that of his wife and children, and a sort of weightlessness accompanies such knowledge. “There was a fire of freedom in it. There was a curious wash of something freely called happiness.”
Friday, May 5
Such wealth, if true, comes at a cost. Only the most highly skilled have citizenship. Those lacking talent, along with refugees, natives and criminals, are denied citizenship, forced to live in substandard housing, enduring menial jobs with inadequate compensation. The state confiscates infants of non-citizens raising them in institutional settings and determining their roles in life. “A life of doing repetitive menial labor without any assurance of compensation was like walking down a path backward. Life was terrifying and tedious. Each time they paused to take stock of their lives, they found themselves unfailingly worse off than before,” the author explains. “Saha residents thus grew more childish, petty, and simpleminded.”
A few flee to Saha Estates, just outside of Town and they become self-reliant, treasuring minimal freedoms that come with separation from Town. Saha residents are curious about one another but limit questions. “Most people who can’t tell you about their past aren’t bad,” explains one character. “It’s the ones that lie about it that are bad.” Most residents try to keep a low profile, but troubles emerge when Saha and Town residents mix. Saha becomes an easy target for police when any crime occurs, regardless of location or circumstances.
The state expects complete compliance, ensuring that any who disagree with its authority will vanish. Only a few people recall the Butterfly Riot thirty years earlier after a ship bearing non-citizens and those avoiding deportation went missing. Family members “who were suspicious began to question their own minds as time passed, telling themselves they were mistaken or dreaming. The desperate hope of recovery scattered in the wind like hearsay.” A quiet protest began, with folded white boats pasted on black construction paper along with the question: Where did the ship go? Rumors flared. “There was no ban on making paper boats, but the remarkable part was this: people had no trouble believing that there were paper boat bans and kindergarten teachers paying fines.” Town locates the woman who lost her brother on the ship and folded the first paper boat, promptly executing her.
“The Butterfly Riot came to serve as a metaphor for extreme chaos, anxiety, and fear” – and the state exerts total control, ending all committees and any other trace of mechanism for citizen input. Defiance and rebellion become rare, with most incidents ending with execution or suicide.
The state deems questions, doubt, and unconventional behavior as unacceptable for those are the first steps toward change. “Nothing inspires action like curiosity, you know,” one woman concedes.
A haunting setting, odd characters who withhold their histories, lend strange beauty to this vague and fragmented prose. Of course, it’s inevitable for Town to pursue demolition of Saha. And just as inevitable, one character responds with a violent backlash directed against the façade that is Town.