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.

‘Imagination,’ Joyce said once, ‘is memory.’ And while this is, in a sense, a truism – since fantasy’s raw material must consist of what we know and our wildest dreams have recognisable components – it is also true that, for an exile, memory can be vexed and problematic. Time stops, for the remembering expatriate, and the past becomes his native land. Strangely frozen, it can only be challenged in the imagination, as Dante in his exile challenged his past by using Christian myth to suppress time and give his enemies hell. Joyce, too, suppressed time by making Ulysses happen in a single day – and used his fiction to settle scores. Dante was a political exile who yearned to go home: Joyce, who exiled himself, chose not to. What they have in common is that both focused their energies in art, where memory’s poison can become its cure.

What, though, about more ordinary exiles? The less genial millions who are less fully focused on the past? What happens to their remembering imagination and imaginative memories? I should say at once that by ‘exile’ I mean someone who retains their old identity as opposed to one who, on landing in, say, New York, sheds it and becomes an American. Emigrants come in both varieties, especially among peoples like the Irish who have emigrated in such strength that there are far more people of Irish descent outside our island than in it.

I call this piece an interview with myself because, since I, too, live in exile, I can use myself as an example. And the first exemplary fact about me is that I was educated not to do this. ‘Don’t talk about yourself,’ warned my school nuns who, as nuns, believed in humility and, as Irishwomen, in prudence. We are, despite our reputation, a reticent people and wear a loose-lipped mask over our tight-lipped face. History explains why. Whether we stayed at home, when home was a reluctant colony of England, or emigrated, it was always safer to play things cool. ‘Whatever you say, say nothing!’ is an Irish graffito which I see scribbled on walls in London, presumably by English people who, thinking it funny, take it for an Irish bull. What it is is sound advice for anyone who is off his own ground – or has lost it. You bide your time, say but don’t say, elude and delude, and today, even as I flout inherited wisdom by talking openly, I am conciliating old ghosts by pretending that I am not confessing but being interviewed. This is merely to acknowledge for once what always happens when I write. One half of me draws out the other. Exiles are double. Like fiction-writers, they have bifocal vision.

‘So, Ms O’Faolain,’ asks my interviewing half – real interviewers always ask me this – ‘how Irish are you?’

My answer is that I need regular doses of an antidote, lest Irishness of a strain peculiar to exiles paralyse my mind. The antidote is selfdistrust and one reason exiles need it is because their remembered country, unlike the real one, does not evolve. This is true of remembered Englands, Belgiums and no doubt Japans. Englobed in the wanderer’s memory, his homeland stays for ever the same – and he or she risks becoming petrified by memory, like Lot’s wife. I have known English expatriates in Florence, and Italian ones in Los Angeles, who became more and more odd, pickled and antiquated, keeping up customs and manners which, unknown to them, had lost currency ‘back home’. This is a risk for all exiles but especially for Irish ones because our remembered Ireland was itself mesmerised by coercive memories.

Ireland, in some reckonings a ‘victim country’, long ago developed the victim’s habit of using propaganda to win friends and rouse its people, and the propaganda got out of control. When I was growing up, it was in charge of our school curriculum. History, as we were taught it, was a mystic myth. As ‘victim peoples’ do – think of the Jews, blacks and even, in Napoleon’s time, the defeated, disunited and humiliated Germans – we persuaded ourselves that our failure to achieve independence was a consequence of our being too spiritual to be practical. German resentment at the military victories of rationalist France led to their promoting counter-values which developed into the Romantic movement. Jews claim to be God’s chosen people, and so on. As recently as ten years ago in Ireland I heard the English take-over of our island described as the victory of a technologically advanced but spiritually backward people over a spiritually advanced but technologically backward one.

The implications of such thinking are that technology is bad for the soul, worldly success ignoble and ours a race of saints. Since we are, in reality, as practical a people as any other and had backed ourselves into a contradiction, the only course open to us was to pretend to the spirituality claimed by our own propaganda, while pursuing our practical aims as energetically as we could. So far Irish referenda have failed to legalise abortion or divorce: we prefer to lay claim to heroic virtue, while allowing those who can afford the airfare to obtain what comforts they need in England. In other words, we double-think and live with a divided consciousness.

The exile from a place ruled by double-think is likely to be quadrisected. Victim countries have a coercive hold on their diaspora and the writer who leaves physically but not emotionally ends up with an eye like a prism. Seeing the doubleness with his or her own double vision, he or she is forever squinting through sunbursts of distress at the adjustments made by fellow-countrymen and – more so – women trapped in complexities of piety, loyalty and iconoclastic appetite.

Even for Irish writers who stay at home, penetrating cover and watching for people’s masks to slip must be one of the commonest challenges. Many of our stories move towards a moment of truth. Many are about people whose consciousness is split – and it is surely no accident that it was Joyce who first fully exploited the interior monologue, a device which reveals the inner self even of characters whose self is concealed.

In sum, a bruised collective memory has driven generations of Irish people to fictions of one sort or another and, since the population at large is affected, the imaginative writer is saddled with the job of trying to rectify our misted eyeglass, in other words trying to see straight. As stories respond to stories and words converse with words, each generation of writers is apt to feel choked by the last.

I grew up in a house buzzing with stories. Both my father and mother wrote them. Many were about their youth when they had been active in the Irish struggle for independence, a heroic period which had by now led to disillusion. It seemed to me that they had preempted and used up the usual stances open to young people. Their memories fizzed with openness, risk and readiness for change. But now change had stopped. A new, conformist society had congealed. It was as if the imaginative oxygen had been drained off or as if I was older than they.

Recently, it occurred to me to look at my own writing to see whether it revealed inherited patterns. Since most people’s first work is apt to be a recording of their own noisy and youthful pulse, I turned to my third book, which was, as it happens, not a work of fiction but that favourite Irish exercise, a plunge into the past. Not in God’s Image, published in 1973, is a documentary history of women edited in collaboration with my husband, Lauro Martines. Its title comes from a statement by one of the Church Fathers to the effect that man was but woman was not – or not quite – made in God’s image. Are there Irish patterns here? Well, there are tendencies which, though partly due to Lauro’s partnership and the spirit of the Sixties, are also recognisably Irish. For example, the book aims to look at history from below, shows distrust – victim-countries breed this – of official attitudes, is alert to underdog irony, and keeps a close eye on the Roman Catholic Church.

In my next book, a novel. Women in the Wall, a sixth-century saint leaves her brutish warrior husband to found a convent which will provide a haven of peace for women. Ironically, the women then invite into this haven the very political intrigue which they had fled. Violence follows and, with hindsight, I see that my peace-seeking nuns had, like most of the people I knew when I was growing up, a divided consciousness. Man in the Cellar, too, has a divided attitude to violence. It is about a woman who traps her abusive husband in their cellar but finds her revenge foiled, as she must now either leave or kill him. Next, in No Country for Young Men, I homed in on the theme of memory and Irish politics. The novel has a double plot set partly in the present and partly in the Twenties. Here, too, cyclical vision prevails and events repeat themselves just as they continue to do in Irish history. The motif of submerged memory is dominant. The past is coercive.

Looking with an alerted eye, I find exile, doubleness, cyclical action, and politics-as-a-mirror-for-religion recurring in my next four books too – which is a shock, since I was unaware of this as I wrote. Writing blind, seeing patterns when it is too late to change them, am I imprisoned by racial memory? Guided by it as the mermaid is guided by the submerged rudder of her tail? Or is the fact that my books are – try to be – funny a healthy sign? A way of casting off the rudder? To turn Joyce around: if imagination is memory, then surely memory can be reimagined?

While I am in the midst of these cogitations, my husband and I are back in Paris, where we dine with our Bosnian Serb friends, whose frustration has grown acute. Nobody, they insist, reports the atrocities committed by the Muslims. Bosnia, blood-soaked as it now is, cannot be allowed to survive. It should never have been recognised. They blame the Vatican. They blame Germany and the Croats. They see a conspiracy against themselves led by a press which, they claim, demonises them and will not give them a hearing. Journalists who try either cannot get their copy published or – they lower their voices – ‘die’. Saudi Arabia, they assure us, is pouring money into the pockets of French intellectuals, which is why they are so resolutely anti-Serb.

My hosts’ smiles are wild and twisted but, still, we try to make small talk while they fill our glasses with champagne. We remind each other, over our raised glasses, that we have been friends for twenty or so years. The bittersweet tension reminds me of Scheherazade. How Oriental they seem as they rail against the old Ottoman Empire. Are they right? Or is rightness a relevant idea here at all? The air writhes like the air over a candle.

They have other guests: a Croat-Serb couple who are also old friends. I sit by the Croat, who keeps an eye on the black monitory flutter of his wife’s eyebrows. She has the face of an icon: seductive, elegant and fierce. He picks a moment when she is not watching to tell me that the hatred and violence is not nearly as old as the others claim. The worst of it started in this century. He is from Dubrovnik and recalls how, during the war, inland Croats tyrannised the coastal, Italianised ones who had for centuries been part of the Venetian Empire. Carried away, he starts to sing the song of ‘Si’: an irredentist song which the Italian troops – ‘who protected us then’ – would sing whenever they fell out with their Croatian allies. It was reassuring, he recalls, to hear them sing it at night in the Dubrovnik streets, as it meant the rift was widening. Complexities and the impulse to be free of them gyre in his memory. The black moth-flutter beams resolution at him across the levitating table. Like a magic carpet or one of those Mediterranean hill-village roofs which need to be weighted with stones, the table feels ready to take off. Underneath there is a clash of old rudders.

The signalling brows are trying to stiffen my gentle, softening friend, who has just confided to me that he is really a Venetian at heart. I applaud his treachery and want to say: ‘Let’s all be Venetians.’ But my hostess, as if mindreading, addresses me directly, ‘You don’t believe us,’ and I see that she, too, has a face like that of a gilded icon. Sometimes, I remember, the gilding takes the shape of flames.

‘I don’t know,’ I say, ‘how can I know?’

The table is taking off. Rising, lurching until all I can see above me is the scaly coil of tails working like a propeller, it floats up until it is as high as a chandelier. Abruptly it tilts as my Croatian friend leans down and yells that he is a Venetian, a European and wants no part in this new madness. My husband and I reach our hands up to him. We stand on our chairs, but his Serbian wife has her arms around him and the table floats through the ceiling which closes behind it revealing a discoloration as faint as a water stain or the trace of an old fresco. Dimly, I hear our hostess’s voice. ‘Conspiracy,’ it murmurs like a dying wind, ‘con ... spir ...’ But maybe it is only wind?

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