Interview with Myself

Julia O’Faolain

My topics are exile, memory and the imagination, and I plan to approach them through a story which has been haunting me. It is an old one about a mermaid: one of those mythic creatures dreamed up by lonely sailors and fishermen who fancied that they had seen beautiful naked women sitting on rocks among the waves. Possibly what they really saw were albino seals gleaming in the moonlight. Maybe the sailors were dazzled, misled by wishful thinking – or had had too much to drink. In the story I am thinking of a fisherman has children by a mermaid, and fearing lest she leave him and go back to the sea, removes and hides her tail. The story has variants but in the end she always finds the tail and goes.

I think of the story as being about exile and the way exogamous marriage can separate women from their kin. I fancy, too, that the tail figures a submerged, faintly monstrous part of us: ancient amphibian memories and, possibly too, more recent tribal impulses which do not fit the way we want to live now.

I started thinking of this because of a Bosnian woman whom I have known for some decades. She lives in Paris and, like her husband and mine, is a historian, so when we meet, the three of them talk about history in the calm way that professionals do while I, not being a historian, don’t say much. Last time we met, however, Bosnia was in the news, so, over dinner, I put a question to her about the Bosnian Muslims for whose fate the papers were making us concerned, and was startled by the wrath this unleashed. She had, she told me, no sympathy for the Bosnian Muslims who, in the days of the Ottoman Empire, had oppressed their Christian neighbours. Her own great-grandfather’s bride had been abducted on her wedding day by a lecherous pasha’s men. She had other stories, too, about feudal haughtiness and very old wrongs which she was ready neither to forget nor to forgive – still less to view with her usual balanced and scholarly detachment. As she talked, her eyes acquired the bitterness of brine, and she could not have seemed more alarmingly alien if, on looking under the table for her feet, I had seen them turn flat and finny like a mermaid’s tail.

That evening ended uneasily and it was not until later that, thinking back, I remembered that my own family history contains memories which might, if the right – or wrong – circumstances arose, prick at me like those of the Bosnian Serbs. One is my mother’s grandmother’s memory of being evicted from her land in Ireland because she had not paid tithes to a Protestant Church which in her eyes must have been quite as foreign, oppressive, heretical and unforgivable as the Ottoman pashas were to the Bosnian Serbs. A Gael from outside the Pale, this great-grandmother of mine spoke no English, was no doubt perplexed by English laws and, to the end of her life, my mother assured me, used to cross the street whenever she saw a Protestant clergyman. My Bosnian friend was less alien than I had thought. Our submerged atavisms had at least as much in common as did our polite and social selves. Above the waist, sitting at table with our mild scholarly husbands, we could negotiate smoothly. She had confused me by flicking up a fishy fin. Even submerged impulses affect the way we feel and imagine.

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