Nobber, by Oisin Fagan, JM Originals, 304 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1529389098
Oisin Fagan burst onto the literary scene a couple of years ago with a remarkable collection of stories, Hostages. Rather than describe a world, it seemed to invent one, a world which was strange but oddly familiar. It was certainly hyperlocal, in its evocation of the localities he was familiar with, the big-breasted landscape of Meath with its crannogs and passage tombs, its castles, mottes and baileys, and the River Boyne snaking through it like a dormant goddess. It is a place curiously neglected in Irish literature, where it seems quite reasonable to start a family story in 1574 and end it in 2111, as one of the stories does. In Hostages, the lush green fields of Meath had somehow acquired a purple haze and history was filtered through a thoroughly contemporary hallucinatory sensibility.
One term which was bandied around in discussion of the collection was dystopian, and there was even talk of magical realism, but these terms are misleading. The stories were not fables, or allegories, they simply described a reality. Reading the reviews at the time, I was reminded of Gabriel García Márquez, one of the leading figures of the so-called magical realism genre. Later in his career, with some exasperation, he denounced the term in relation to his work, saying his books were actually a plain chronicle of the world in which he had grown up in rural Columbia.
Hostages seemed to be doing something similar, but with its dazzling diversity of styles and themes, it left many of us wondering in which direction Fagan would go from there. One thing we did not expect is that he would set off for the village of Nobber in the County Meath, the year being 1348, the Year of the Plague. As the novelist Emer Martin once remarked, Meath is medieval, and in Nobber, it is in fact always 1348. This is not an historical novel. As one character remarks, Nobber is hell, and hell is always contemporary, just as the end of the word is always about to happen.
The title, like the village itself, expresses a duality, as it is a Gaelic word referring to a Norman construction. From the opening pages, there are clashing worlds, as the marauding group of armoured Norman adventurers confronts the barebreasted Gaelic woman. The encounter of self-proclaimed civilisation with what it sees as barbarism is always mediated, and long passages at the beginning of the book are told through the medium of interpreters, reminding us, as if we needed reminding, that we live in a translated country. In Nobber, this primal scene turns out to resemble the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. But this dynamic of native and colonist is familiar to us from other sources. As has often been pointed out, the Western is a peculiarly Irish genre, reaching its apotheosis in the work of John Ford. At one point towards the end of the novel, an arrow fired by a Gael with facial paint, sitting sideways on his horse, pierces a Norman’s stomach. “I’m gut shot,” he moans. As a child I delighted in the idea that the village of Virginia, where I went fishing, had once been as much a frontier town as its American twin. Somehow, this parallel has never been utilised so much in Irish literature as here. There are times when Nobber is reminiscent of Blood Meridian, and there are even echoes of George Saunders and At-Swim-Two-Birds in its comedy, but it is profoundly cinematic. There are touches of Tarantino, but above all, it is reminiscent of the Jodorovsky acid western of the 1970s, El Topo.
So what is Nobber about? The plot, in which a gang of Norman adventurers arrive in a stricken frontier town to buy up deeds belonging to the previous wave of Normans as the native Gaels see an opportunity to recover their lost land, can certainly be seen as carrying contemporary echoes of disaster capitalism, and the themes of property and dispossession are plain. But perhaps it’s just about a day in the life of a small Meath village in the summer of 1348. Ultimately, it is unlike anything else I have ever read. The best description perhaps comes from Fagan himself. As the Norman gang approaches Nobber they encounter a bizarre object, a mysterious totem-like structure built of living crows by the native Gaels. “I do not know what it intends to portray,” Harold [one of the Normans] says, gazing up at it, “but whatever it is that it does portray, it portrays it very mightily. It does not fit in anything, though it does at the time seem to remind me of everything.”
Whatever it is, Nobber may well be one the most original and entertaining Irish novels since The Butcher Boy.
Michael O’Loughlin is a writer.