Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 178 pages; 1998.
Guilt, atonement and the futility of war are the central themes in Bernard MacLaverty’s 1983 novel Cal.
Set in Northern Ireland, it tells the story of Cal, a young, unemployed Catholic man living on a Protestant housing estate at the height of The Troubles. Each night he waits to be fire-bombed out of the home he shares with his father and each morning he gets up to find everything is okay.
But there’s a dark, pervasive atmosphere, one that seems only conducive to fear and violence, and for much of this novel we follow Cal’s tortured path as he wrestles with his own conscience, for he has been the accomplice in a horrendous crime for which it seems impossible to atone.
He felt that he had a brand stamped in blood in the middle of his forehead which would take him the rest of his life to purge.
Refusing to work in the nearby abattoir with his father (for reasons that become apparent much later in the story), Cal is a drifter but under pressure from local IRA men, including a shady character known as Crilly, to take sides. When he refuses to do so, the pressure only intensifies:
‘Do you still want to – refuse to help?’ ‘I’m afraid so.’ ‘Not to act – you know – is to act.’ Crilly looked confused. ‘By not doing anything you are helping to keep the Brits here.’ Crilly nodded his head vigorously and said, ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’ ‘But it all seems so pointless,’ said Cal. Skeffington paused and looked at him. He spoke distinctly, as if addressing one of his primary classes. ‘It’s like sitting in a chair that squeaks. Eventually they will become so annoyed they’ll get up and sit somewhere else.’ ‘How can you compare blowing somebody’s brains out to a squeaking chair?’ said Cal. Skeffington shrugged his shoulders. ‘That’s the way it will look in a hundred years’ time.’ ‘You have no feelings.’
When Cal gets a job working on a local Protestant farm, he finds his fortunes slightly improved: the young librarian he has been admiring from afar lives on the farm with her small daughter. She’s a widow and Cal befriends her. Before long, he is obsessed and falls in love with her. But she’s unattainable — and not merely because she’s from the “wrong” religion.
A love story
Cal is often described as a love story. On the face of it, that’s a good description. But it’s also a deeply moving story about how the political effects the personal, how ordinary people can get caught up in wider conflicts and the impact that has on their day-to-day lives.
I read it with a mixture of horror and fascination. There’s exquisite anguish and pain on every page. The pacing is brilliant, and MacLaverty’s use of flashbacks to explain events in Cal’s past are so expertly done that each new scene comes as a powerful revelation: that nothing in this story should be accepted on face value, that everyone has secrets to keep and allegiances to maintain.
Out of this horrific mire, Cal’s tortured existence, caught between the terrible deed he has committed and the redemption he seeks, is nothing short of stunning. He seems to be constantly in a state of paralysis: unable to move ahead of his own accord, passively waiting to be the victim he feels he deserves to become:
To explain how the events of his life were never what he wanted, how he seemed unable to influence what was going on around him. He had had a recurring dream of sitting at the wheel of a car driving and at a critical point turning the wheel and nothing happening.
Despite being an avid Irish literature fan, this is the first novel by Bernard MacLaverty that I have read. It won’t be the last.