Non-fiction – paperback; Tramp Press; 237 pages; 2019.
Minor Monuments is a collection of 12 elegantly written, highly personal essays by Ian Maleney, a journalist based in Dublin.
These thoughtful pieces are largely focused on the Irish Midlands, where Maleney grew up in an isolated rural farming community, and the ways in which his paternal grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease impacted his family.
There are common themes throughout — memory, sound, loss, the meaning of “home” and our connections to place — which lends the volume a strong coherence, but it is the recurring mentions of his grandfather, John Joe, a presence that looms large in almost every essay in this collection, which provides a cumulative power that is deeply affecting.
Interestingly, Maleny studied sound engineering at university, so there is a continual focus on recording every day sounds — people talking, urban noise, crackling fires — and discovering “aural landscapes” in places where people are absent. He is interested in the idea that what we might hear isn’t necessarily what is picked up on a sound recording. Likewise, he believes it is the voice that brings a person “back to life” after they have died, perhaps because it is true and “honest”, not images of them in photographs.
I have always been more comfortable recording someone than taking their photo. To record someone’s voice, with or without permission, doesn’t really feel like stealing — it doesn’t feel like I’m taking anything from anyone, or putting anyone in a compromising position. If they know I’m doing it, I feel like they don’t act all that different, and neither do I.
Occasionally, the essays, such as “Machine learning”, about Hungarian professor John van Neumann’s research into mathematics, game theory, geometry and quantum mechanics (among other subjects), which then led him to collaborating with British mathematician Alan Turing on the philosophy of artificial intelligence, seems hugely out of place. But Maleney cleverly shows how this work is aligned with memory and the human brain, drawing links to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
I think he’s best, though, when writing about his own lived experiences, whether that be attending Seamus Heaney’s funeral (“A kind of closing cadence”) or his own grandfather’s wake (“See ye in church”). There are other essays about his grandmother succumbing to the flu (“pneumonia”), his first summer as an undergrad (“Season of migration”) and the love he has for his grandparent’s modest farm house (“Below”).
I like the way threads of an idea may reappear in later essays, giving the collection the feeling of unity and logic. Regardless, it’s clear that Maleney is a deep thinker, yet the prose, free from clutter, polished and simple, belies a mind hard at work. Yet it’s not heavy going: it feels almost effortlessly light — and there’s plenty of self-deprecating humour to soften the often sad subjects discussed here.
In essence, there’s nothing minor about Minor Monuments. I really loved it.
6 thoughts on “‘Minor Monuments’ by Ian Maleney”
I’ve just finished reading this book and agree with you about every point you make. I too found “Machine Learning” a little less interesting and engaged than the others but oh, when he writes about sound and memory and the tall young men who were once babies bathed in the basin, I thought the writing was so beautiful and compelling.
Thank you, Theresa. It’s a beautiful collection, isn’t it, full of thought-provoking pieces. I found it fascinating that that he acknowledged he had the kind of education / worldly experience his parents never had, but he still hankered after the simple life of being rooted in the one place, getting married and having a family.
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It sounds more like a memoir than an essay collection (nothing wrong with that). I would certainly find it easier to write in pieces than I would to write a continuous narrative. My own grandfather, a farmer, died of Alzheimer’s, the onset left him terribly confused as to why he couldn’t remember things, not even long enough to count a flock of sheep. (I think I’d rather be photographed than recorded, I’d certainly rather look at a photo than listen to a recording of myself).
You’re right, I guess it is a memoir of sorts. It’s his personal account of a growing up, really, and coming to understand decisions his parents made and the life that his paternal grandparents have lead.
Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. My grandmother had dementia and I remember her ticking off my dad (her son) for driving a car because she didn’t think he was old enough to have a license. No matter what we said she just didn’t understand he was in his 40s and not her little baby boy!
And I agree: as much as I hate getting photographed, I would rather look at a picture than hear my voice, which always sounds deeper (and with a truly fucked up accent) than I realise.