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Farce, declares the Encyclopædia Britannica, is “a form of the comic in dramatic art, the object of which is to excite laughter by ridiculous situations and incidents.” I would go further: farce is life, only more so. Life, with its disregard for human dignity, may be tragic, comic, majestic, or mundane, or all at once, but farce is always there: la farce, according to the French, who gave us the word (from farcir, to stuff, as a turkey with chestnuts), “est toujours au rendezvous.”
Farce has been acknowledged as a powerful force at least since the time of ancient Greece, when it ruled the satire-dramas of Aristophanes and Menander. The Roman satirists Terence and Plautus had their own stock language of farce that we still recognize today: the glutton, the lecher, the clown. Medieval morality plays often threw in a set of donkey ears, or a swift kick in the britches. The Elizabethan age, with its daily contrasts of splendor and squalor (such contrasts being the essence of farce), was ripe for farcical drama, and Shakespeare embraced the form in The Comedy of Errors, and many other works, including such ostensibly serious plays as Measure for Measure.
And consider the enduring appeal of the 20th century’s farceurs: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, Peter Sellers, and Monty Python. The language of things going wrong, identities getting mixed up, pretensions demolished by a pie in the face, the turd in the punch bowl: a universal language indeed. Nor is it just the comics and buffoons who live by farce. Consider Dostoevsky’s towering grandeur that so often turns ludicrous in a moment; the prolonged and quite ridiculous birth of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; Fellini’s alternately rollicking and sentimental dramas of sad clowns, whores, and gluttons; Mahler’s sweeping strings that yield to burlesque hurdy-gurdy tunes: this is farce as great art, but the spirit of farce pervades everyday life. As one of the novelist’s duties is to capture the evanescent in everyday life, capturing the spirit of farce is one way to ensure that posterity will relate, just as today’s playgoers laugh at the buffoon antics in Plautus and Aristophanes.
So, with an (ever hopeful) eye on the future, I subtitled my new novel The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad “A Mostly Irish Farce,” just as its predecessor Killoyle was subtitled “An Irish Farce” (the difference is in the immigrants, mostly Indian, in the dramatis personae). Now, the antecedents of Irish farce are ancient indeed, as ancient as the habitation of Ireland. Among modern Irish writers the distinguished firm of Joyce, Beckett, and O’Brien, in particular, pays dutiful homage to the forbears of the genre, the myth-makers and shanachies of the great epic age of heroism (Finn MacCool, Cu Chulainn) and farce (mad Sweeney, the pooka). I in turn hope to pay homage to all these, especially to Ireland itself.
Mind you, if Ireland were pure invention—to quote Oscar Wilde’s very Irish comment on Japan: “There is no such country, there are no such people”—it would be a tremendous help to the novelist writing about the place. In The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad, as in Killoyle, I would have had no competition from the “real” world against which my made-up city and county of Killoyle must be ruthlessly judged.
If it existed, Killoyle would be a Danish and Norman settlement built around an ancient Celtic place of worship, Cuìll gHuaìll (“the church of the flail”). It would have a population of 42,000 (making it the fifth largest in the republic). It would rain intermittently, episodically, especially during the spring and winter, pausing for moments of dazzling blue and golden shafts of sunlight and bright puddles reflecting the opulent sky. There would be stained scraps of newspaper chased along the gutters by the sea gusts, on which would also ride the scent of beer-yeast from Molloy’s Brewery and the signature smell of the British Isles: the grease of frying chips, burgers, bangers, bacon, kidneys, Mars bars in batter, etc. These aromas would waft through the damp air to the nostrils of the new arrival aboard the Brest or Holyhead ferry docking in the harbor.
Then there would be the sea—the sea, a blue sliver at the end of alleyways, a line on the horizon beyond the garden gate, a shivering skein of blues and greens and tints of silvery-gray enfolding the harbor’s long stone jetty. On stormy days the breakers would crash against the Strand’s low seawall and spew foam over the jetty. On calm, clear days you might just be able to make out on the horizon a dun-colored slice, like roast beef in gravy, of Wales.
There’d be a decent walk along the seafront called the Promenade, boasting a statue of General Michael Collins, “The Big Fella” (played by Liam Neeson in the film), who grew up nearby in the real county, West Cork. The rich end of the Promenade would be called the Shops, after the upscale boutiques. Then there would be annual events of the kind that enliven any resort’s placid routine: the pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Invisible Virgin (attendance slightly off in these secular times), a yacht regatta or two in the choppy waters off Killoyle Harbor, and of course the central event of the novel, the annual world bartending championship known as the Pint-Pulling Olympiad (first prize: a pub of your very own), a high-profile show likely to attract the attention of newspaper hounds, drifters, souvenir hawkers, and publicity-seekers of more sinister intent, some of them heavily armed.
Most of all, it is an homage to Ireland, and to the Irish writers who have stamped me forever with their love for the sound of a tale well told.
As for the characters, I’ve met them all, in some guise, here and there. There’s Mick McCreek, another Big Fella straight out of the old Ireland of smoky pubs, nightly pints, wild fiddle music, and a quick fumble with a likely gal on the car’s back seat, of a rainy Saturday night. Then there’s Fergus, the Ulster businessman, and his lover, fickle Cornelius the local church sexton, a real pair of depressive screwballs, “gay” in the sociopolitical sense but certainly not in the emotional one. There’s the poet-turned-hotel-manager, Milo Rogers, quondam hero of Killoyle, now reduced (or elevated, I’m not sure which) to doing the footnotes in The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad—but he gets his own back with one of the longest bloody non-epic poems in the history of Irish verse.
Then there’s a character you expect to meet up with sooner or later in any novel calling itself Irish: your standard, passionate, beautiful Kathleen ni Houlihan / Sweet Rosaleen figure—only this time she’s from Calcutta and her name’s Rashmi. The daughter of wealthy Calcutta communists, Rashmi’s officially in Ireland doing a six-month factory stint in a union-sponsored work-exchange program, but her secret mission from the Indian government is to uncover discrimination against Indian immigrants—and to keep an eye open for much else besides; as in the case of Kathleen ni Houlihan, she’s not what she seems at first sight. Her true identity, apart from that of bona-fide babe, boggles the mind of her poor working-stiff-of-a-cousin, Anil Swain, the real hero of the book and man of the hour, the poor bastard. Unlike Rashmi, who can afford to fly home to India whenever she wants a new sari, Anil’s a humble immigrant, working as a waiter at Killoyle’s Koh-I-Noor Indian restaurant. As with most immigrants, he’s got ambitions to better himself: he wants to run the restaurant, not just serve nan and curries. In the course of trying to fulfill this ambition, however, Anil comes up against the age-old conventions of farce; he has to overcome his yen for his sexy cousin Rashmi while trying to wriggle out of perilous situations involving mistaken identity, bullets flying about, and even a car chase—but it’s all in pursuit of his own happiness and that of Rubina, his demanding Brahmin wife In a sense Anil and Rubina are what the book’s about. They are, of all things, immigrants to Ireland—new arrivals in a nation that attracts talent and ambition just as the Old Ireland drove them off. So on a somewhat solemn, sociological level, the book’s about the maturity of the Irish nation as a member of Europe and the wider world, and the death of long-outmoded stereotypes.
But never mind all that. Most of all, The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad is an homage to Ireland, real and imaginary, and to the Irish writers who have stamped me forever with their biting irreverence and love for the sound of a tale well told; as Beckett says of Joyce: “His writing is not about something. It is the thing itself.”
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