Exchange Place, by Ciaran Carson, Blackstaff Press, 192 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0856409035
When abroad seeing something for the first time, we tend to revert to memory. The cast of the mind affecting the cast of the eye. On a recent trip to Madrid I found myself negotiating my way through the old barrios of Antón Martín and Lavapiés that unfold close to the Prado Museum, where I had spent the morning. Wandering in unfamiliar territory, I began populating the streets with a cast of characters from remembered Carlos Saura movies and Robert Capa photographs; street hawkers and delivery men hoisting crates of oranges on their backs, the crates held in place by straps across their foreheads. My memory filled in the gaps in my local knowledge, supplanting what I saw and what I failed to see. Meanwhile, the oversized SUVs trundled past. Perception then is threaded through with the accumulations of the remembrance of things past, as it were, and you find yourself in two places at once, both at home and abroad.
Ciaran Carson’s Exchange Place is both at home and abroad in the familiar territory of Carson’s Belfast and the more recently added location to his oeuvre, Paris. The Exchange Place of the title is a narrow lane, or an entry, in Belfast parlance, where garbed in a windowpane check jacket, we enter a noir thriller of fugitive identities, underground drinking dens, well-groomed spies and the disappeared. The tick, tick of a blind man’s cane sweeps along the path with the second hands of the Albert Clock in Belfast and a Rolex that, might, just might, be a fake. Dapper indeed are the two men giving chase in this tale; Kilfeather and Kilpatrick, two Johns, fugitives both. Their clothes; hacking jackets, tan oxford brogues and a snap-brim Trilby literally make the men.
Kilpatrick, a writer who is in Paris researching a book about the city based on writings from authors fictitious or otherwise, “liked to buy at least one item of clothing in any location he might be visiting, items which would serve as souvenirs or aides-mémoire, tangible connections with the past, redolent with association”. The souvenir recalls the city that he has visited, what occurred while he was there. The texture of the cloth is a tangible reminder of the colourful threads of a story in which he unwittingly became the protagonist.
Kilfeather meanwhile, cast out from his home in Belfast due to a bomb scare, and therefore finding himself abroad staying in a hotel in his own city, echoes Kilpatrick’s predicament. They mirror each other, both being plagued by tricky characters who seem to know more about them than they know themselves. Both are chasing a third man, who may or may not be the same man. Caught somewhere along the connecting strand of memory, they become the two agents in the past that make up a past perfect; he was sure he had seen him before, and the like. One of those agents, giving a passing nod, slowly superimposes himself over the other. A double exposure, that trick of the camera that allows one figure to ghost over another and become the echo homo.
Exchange Place echoes MacNeice’s “incorrigibly plural” world, where Belfast and Paris become crazier and much more than we realise. The OED, as so often with Carson, is the map that leads the way. Perception becomes speculation, unwinding etymologically to something “observed from a vantage point”, as we sight Carson in surveillance mode, unravelling his tale over the texture of the city from on high. The sonic landscape echoes with Bach’s Contrapunctus XIV, as played by Glenn Gould; that “intertwining, unfolding, recapitulating” score that first insinuated itself into Carson’s poetry in his 2009 collection For All We Know.
And for all we know, there may be “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, as Kilfeather, recalling the ghost-visited Hamlet, concludes. And if this be the case, then it is left to Carson to arrange the story from his selection of aides-mémoire secreted in the oubliettes beneath our dreams. The text becomes a musical arrangement, a sonic map. Phrases repeated fugue-like translate the reader through a noir fug of memory from the past to the present, the here and now. There are worlds within words, uncanny echoes creating many selves, doubles, doppelgangers, or as Carson has it, the “fetch”.
Which sends us back to 2003, and Carson’s collection Breaking News, where he first broke with his signature long line in favour of a much shorter one and an absence of punctuation that allowed the words to simultaneously look forward and back. On Goya’s Third of May, 1808 we read: “behold / the man // who faces / the stream // of light,’ (“Francisco Goya: The Third of May 1808, 1814”). The ecce homo, “arms / flung // open” is transformed here into the echo homo, that “other” that may or may not be yourself.
Down the hall from the Goya room in the Prado Musuem you will find Las Meninas by Velázquez. As you stand there taking in the painting; the elegantly dressed infanta, the dwarf, the artist – poised brush in hand staring out at you, you can easily conjure Velázquez at his canvas in Madrid painting himself painting himself. The author’s hand you may think. But it may well be a sleight of hand for what about the figure at the back, looking over his shoulder as he is about to slip out the door and disappear up the staircase? One Don José Nieto Valázquez, we are told, incidentally head of the royal tapestry works. This, in the Carsonian world, is the illusive hand that spins the yarn. A magician holding up a daguerreotype where, depending on the angle, one minute you are there and gone the next.
Keith Payne is an Irish writer living in Salamanca, Spain.