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The Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely

By Benedict Kiely
Published by Methuen

As one of only five artists and writers currently honoured with election as a Saoi of Aosdana, Benedict Kiely’s reputation as one of Ireland’s grand old men of letters is nothing if not secure. However, as Colum McCann points out in his eloquent and laudatory introduction to this volume, ‘...a perverse monism sometimes remains, insisting that Kiely can be read if you’re white, Irish and over fifty. The truth is, of course, that Kiely should be read in Brixton, Mississippi, Neilstown, Johannesburg and points in between.’
As Kiely is now 81, it is timely that Metheun should gather together his four collections of short stories, and reissue them in one book. Thus we have here the entire contents of A Journey to the Seven Streams (1963), A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly (1973), A Cow in the House (1978), and A Letter to Peachtree (1987), plus the 1977 novella Proxopera for good measure.

 

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While some of Kiely’s early stories do have a traditional structure, and follow realist patterns established by O’Connor, O’Flaherty and O’Faolain, for the most part his style is discursive and digressive, and could even be termed expressionist, in that he subordinates realism to inner vision. Sometimes the seemingly arbitrary intertwining of incidents, tales, snippets of conversation and fragments of memory can irritate, but more often than not the stories repay repeated readings, as the layers of narration are stripped back and revealed as the ebb and flow of a writer who likes travelling hopefully as much as he likes arriving. For Kiely is a master of technique, and therefore has full licence to play with conventional notions of beginning, middle and end. We trust Picasso’s Cubism because we know he can draw like Ingres, and what is fascinating about Kiely is the fluid mix of tradition with experimentation.
Like his younger advocate McCann, Kiely also transposes the national with the international, either through featuring the Irish abroad, or else people from unlikely corners of the globe washed up on these shores. So ‘A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly’ concerns a Japanese prostitute in Dublin, while ‘The White Wild Bronco’ could be described as Ireland’s first Wild West short story. Though written in the third person, ‘Through the Fields in Gloves’ has all the verbal tics of the central character, an old man who spray-paints young girls, while his wife sits at home, too fat to rise from her chair.
But it is the inclusion of Proxopera here that is the clincher. Weirdly prescient of the horrible events of August 15, 1998 in Kiely’s hometown of Omagh, it oscillates effortlessly between the first and third person in recounting the story of a retired schoolteacher forced by terrorists to run a proxy bomb into his local town. Far from hitching a ride on the coattails of yesterday’s headlines, this great anti-war fable should have been read, and should still be read, as a terrible warning. A flawless piece of writing, it is one more reason to celebrate this book.

First published in the Irish Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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