War footing: British troops on a trek with Ethiopian ground forces, February 1941. (Photo: Associated Press)
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Bleak and beautiful: The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

The spirit of Conrad hovers over this tale of an alcoholic Irishman serving in the British army out in Africa during WWII.

The Temporary Gentleman 
Sebastian Barry
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £17.99

 

Sebastian Barry’s eighth novel opens with Jack McNulty, an Irishman serving in the British army during the Second World War, standing on the deck of a supply ship bound for Africa, a bottle of Scotch blazing through his veins. “It is a beautiful night and no mistake,” says the second lieutenant. The engines growl beneath, and the “sombre philosophical lights of God” hang over them like a benediction. Around is “darkness, a confident brush-stroke of rich, black ink”. We might be in the world of Joseph Conrad, and before he reaches the Gold Coast where, adopting a Kurtz-like persona, he will indulge his heart of darkness, McNulty has a Lord Jim experience. The stillness is ripped apart by an “ear-numbing . . . metallic noise”, the port-side goes up, and the second lieutenant is “suddenly as dead as one of those porpoises you will see washed up on the beach at Enniscrone after a storm”. The ship has been torpedoed; McNulty finds himself pulled down into the “deepest dark, the darkest deepest dark that ever was”. While his companions sink to the bottom of the ocean, the warmth of the whisky keeps his own heart ticking.

We are propelled headlong into the turbulence of The Temporary Gentleman, a bleak and beautiful tale about the wreckage of McNulty, a man who has been drowning for years. Conrad’s spirit hovers throughout, but so, too, does a phrase from Henry James. “I have the imagination of disaster,” James wrote in 1896 – “and see life as ferocious and sinister.”

Barry’s readers have met the McNultys before; each member of the family has been, as he puts it, “blown off the road by history’s hungry breezes”. Jack’s brother, Tom, was the husband of Roseanne McNulty, whose story unfolded in The Secret Scripture. An ancient relic abandoned in an asylum, Roseanne described herself as “a thing left over, a remnant woman”. Jack’s elder brother, another piece of historical flotsam and jetsam, was the subject of Barry’s 1998 novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.

Swallowed up by “a hundred different fates and stories”, Barry’s characters live in “the great belly of the whale of what happens”. Barry, a master of metaphor, is fascinated by the slipperiness of narrative and we slide around a good deal in these pages. The Temporary Gentleman is set in 1957, with Jack McNulty outstaying his welcome in Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African colony to gain independence. We have no idea why he is here, what he is running away from, or what to make of our protagonist. Nor does McNulty. During the war, he was a “temporary gentleman” – the term given to a man not born into the officer class – but everything about McNulty is temporary. Over the past 20 years he has wandered the world as a solider, an engineer, a UN observer and a gunrunner, but he cannot get away from Ireland. The country is caught in his system like malaria. “Take away the heat and the fucking palm trees and the black skins,” he says of Accra, “and it’s just Ballymena in the rain.”

He plans to return to Sligo, but first he is writing a memoir of his marriage to Mai, the spirited and statuesque beauty he wed against her father’s wishes (it is always fatal, in Barry’s novels, to be born beautiful and Irish). Mai, who remains unknowable to the reader, spends most of her life waiting for her husband to come home. His past is marinated in alcohol, which makes remembering difficult, but this is not the only reason for McNulty’s strange absence from his own story. “Like a hotel-room facing a high, blank wall”, he “lacks a moral view of things”. He records his courtship, his honeymoon and the collapse of his relationship with Mai as though he were a witness rather than the key player. The first sense we get of his disconnection is when the family house, an heirloom passed on to Mai, is suddenly reclaimed; McNulty, it transpires, has been borrowing against it all along.

Mai is as surprised as we are by the revelation of his failings. Her own bag of money, hidden in the back of the cupboard, has also been filched by her husband, to pay gambling debts, bar bills, milliner’s costs. She can no longer look at him; their marriage falls into silence, and then erupts into warlike scenes described by McNulty as though he were recalling an opium trip. Deep in the seabed of his psyche is a nagging awareness that the attempts to ward off, through drink, his own “darkest deepest dark” resulted in Mai’s subsequent alcoholism and the gradual “erasure” of her vivid life “even as she lived it”. His consciousness that he is not a gentleman at all is as vague and persistent as the buzzing of a fly in the next room; McNulty has ruined his own life and the lives of his wife and children, but a fog clouds his understanding of how it all came about, and how these human ruins are linked to the ruin of his country. It is with the utmost care that Barry allows us to glimpse, through a rent in the mist, where McNulty moves and has his being.

The conclusions of Sebastian Barry’s novels can sometimes disappoint, and readers may find the hairpin turn at the close of this one unsatisfying. It is fitting, however, for a tale that begins with such velocity to end on an emergency stop. The subject of The Temporary Gentleman is historical uncertainty; the uncertainty we are left with as we put down this devastating book is unnervingly appropriate.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times