Arimathea, by Frank McGuiness, Brandon, 256 pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-1847175786
In 2010, Frank McGuinness’s new play placed Greta Garbo in Donegal – an unlikely scenario, but one inspired by a visit she had made to the area in the mid-1970s. It was around this time, as he told Mick Heaney in The Irish Times, that in order to research a play about a novelist slipping into dementia he began to write a novel. Arimathea, recently published to coincide with the opening of The Hanging Gardens in the Abbey Theatre, is the result. Like Greta Garbo Came to Donegal, it explores the impact of an exotic outsider on a rural community. And like that play, it is similarly inspired by a curio of local history: the arrival of an Italian painter to Buncrana at the turn of the twentieth century.
Arimathea is Frank McGuinness’s first novel, and in transferring this story to the 1950s he creates a country town that is very familiar in the Irish canon: insular, hard-pressed, its inhabitants disturbed by unspoken passions. The novel he makes of this material can be funny and incisive, and at times uniquely puzzling. It is a dramatist’s novel, structured through a series of distinct monologues. But its design also owes something to the figure of the artist at its heart. As a dramatist, McGuinness has a masterly way of orchestrating voices, but this novel is one that is equally concerned with ways of seeing.
The metaphor of painting is his own. He was greatly struck, he once told an interviewer, by seeing four sketches Picasso had made of Manet’s Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe. They not only showed one artist responding to another ‑ a process that seemed an apt metaphor for his own dramatic adaptations, which range from Chekhov to Sophocles ‑ but they showed that “[Picasso] was recording different ways of seeing. That’s exactly what I want to do.” It is a fitting description of this novel as well, which wheels between various viewpoints.
The artist who provides its focal point, Gianni, has arrived in Buncrana to paint the Stations of the Cross at the local church. He stays in a house rented from the O’Donovan family, and young Euni O’Donovan is the first to voice the town’s curiosity at the stranger’s arrival:
He came from out foreign and he spoke wild funny. All the older girls thought he was the last word from the day and hour they set eyes on him but they were stupid, and he would no more look at them than if he was the man in the moon. I don’t know where that shower got the notion that he was the kind of fellow listened to the likes of them.
Euni’s is the first in the novel’s series of monologues, followed by her mother, Margaret, her father, Malachy, the local Catholic priest, the Church of Ireland minister, his niece Martha, and finally Gianni himself. Those opening lines are not too promising – this innocent, insular perspective is an overfamiliar device of fiction set in rural Ireland – but the novel becomes more interesting, and more idiosyncratic, as it progresses.
Gianni is soon the focus for the passions and curiosities of this community. He is the vehicle that allows McGuinness to expose its frustrations, and the novel’s first half primarily addresses itself to the ordinary cruelties and comedies of small town life. But Gianni’s monologue, when it arrives, moves away from the tragicomic realism of McGuinness’s Buncrana to introduce an element of the grotesque. In fact this character’s narrative has something of the fable about it, as if the exotic Gianni ‑ or Giotto, as his father calls him ‑ exercises his author’s imagination as much as it does his neighbours’:
None of us measured up to what he was expecting. My mother felt this keenly … My eldest brother was Hairy Arse, my eldest sister Pig’s Eyes, my second sister Elephant Ears, my next brother Rhino Snout and my unfortunate youngest sister was immediately referred to as Scaly Skin. It is terrible to say this about one’s own family, but they were a distinctly odd looking bunch.
As a young boy, Gianni was banished from this odd family for a strange misdemeanour and sent to live in a convent, where he becomes the subject of religious fantasies and superstitions. The story he tells is scarcely believable and in many ways it seems to belong to a different kind of novel. Its closest counterpart on the Buncrana side is found in the monologue of the minister’s niece, Martha Sewell. She is another outsider to the community and provides a foil to Gianni’s character, having a similar capacity for storytelling and a similarly hungry imagination:
… I took to sitting up through the early hours in my most uncomfortable chair, looking into our garden through the window, as I had watched my mother doing … It was only now, as an adult woman, I realised what she was hoping for ‑ that the window would shatter, that the room would be suffused in golden light banishing the night’s – the day’s darkness – that a flash of divine fire would illuminate my world and that I would receive a charge of life to transform me entirely. The Annunciation was the doing of God the Mother. She was filled with longing for a man and she called that longing Gabriel, his wings corresponding to the beating of her heart, seeing in his own shape the reflection – the distortion of herself.
Many of these characters are looking for this self-reflection ‑ in art, religion or love. The desire afflicts even the priest who commissions Gianni’s paintings: “All my life I had tried to find what value is in me. Like my father, I have been looking for my reflection.” But when it appears – whether by means of the fantasy figure of Gianni himself or in the art that he produces ‑ it disturbs more than it consoles.
The novel finally closes in on the Stations of the Cross, the way of sorrows, that invite pilgrims to walk in the path of suffering and identify themselves with Christ’s passion. And in the very final section, where Gianni’s paintings are revealed to the town, there unfolds a dramatic scene of very ordinary suffering. What happens might be the stuff of minor scandal in a small community. But coming at a moment in the novel where all its voices are drawn together ‑ blending the overlapping obsessions and the common secrets – the final effect is to lead the reader to consider those voices not yet heard, and the private agonies that are never shared.
Carol Taaffe is the author of a monograph on Flann O’Brien and teaches Irish literature for the Boston University Dublin Programme.