Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2020

The Wild Laughter, by Caoilinn Hughes

Writers from Ireland — the republic and the north — are among those being featured in this year’s all digital Melbourne Writers Festival.  I have already read and reviewed Anne Enright’s Actress, and listened to her session yesterday; and I enjoyed listening to Jan Carson talking about her book The Fire Starters, and have the book on my TBR. I bought Caoilinn Hughes’ The Wild Laughter because the blurb sounded interesting:

An exhilarating, anarchic look at contemporary Ireland, from one of the country’s most exciting new voices.

It’s 2008, and the Celtic Tiger has left devastation in its wake. Brothers Hart and Cormac Black are waking up to a very different Ireland – one that widens the chasm between them and brings their beloved father to his knees. Facing a devastating choice that risks their livelihood, if not their lives, their biggest danger comes when there is nothing to lose.

A sharp snapshot of a family and a nation suddenly unmoored, this epic-in-miniature explores cowardice and sacrifice, faith rewarded and abandoned, the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we resist. Hilarious, poignant and utterly fresh, The Wild Laughter cements Caoilinn Hughes’s position as one of Ireland’s most audacious, nuanced and insightful young writers.

It certainly is anarchic.  The humour is very dark, and there’s a great deal of crude language among colloquial dialogue and expressions that will be unfamiliar to many outside Ireland.


Skip this section if you just want to know what I thought of the story.  Come back to it if you’re going to read it yourself.

The text is peppered with Irish:

‘Would you try and talk some sense into him, Cormac?’ He might listen to you, with the education.  I’m no use to him.  An ignorant skivvy poltergeist.’

‘Mam,’ Cormac said, shocked.

She inhaled and shifted her gaze to me.  We had the same deep-green eyes, though Nóra wore them like wreaths.  ‘And would you ever close the doors after you.  Keep the winter from following me around, le do thoil.’

Le do thoil means  please  unless a woman like Nóra says it.  Leh-tho-hell, she says.  With your hell. What would she have me do with my hell.  With my hell what?’ (p.38)

I don’t have any experience with Irish.  I like to think that I’m pretty good at negotiating other languages: I have fluency in two, French and Indonesian, and tourist capability in three more (Italian, Spanish and Russian), and learning these languages has enhanced my ability to work things out from context.  And when I’m stumped, I know my way around Google Translate for any language that uses a Roman script. I used that for ‘Sin é an scéal’ plonked on the end of a paragraph on p.86.  It means ‘That is the story’ which makes perfect sense in context, but all the same I could not guess what it meant.  Maybe that’s a common expression in Irish storytelling.  I rather like it, but Google doesn’t have voice output for Irish so I don’t know how to pronounce it.

Then there are allusions to local knowledge:

The lottery tickets won her ten quid and a jealous little sip of air from the man behind the counter, who registered that this woman was spending her winnings in the newsagents and not taking it to Lidl to make it stretch in the way if should rightly be stretched, in light of the economic conditions. (p.87)

I laughed at myself when Google told me that Lidl is a chain of supermarkets and not a town as I had thought it was. No wonder I couldn’t make sense of it.

In French, I’ve been learning about Verlan, a variation of what we call Pig-Latin. Pig-Latin is a language game, but Verlan is spoken by the urban young in Paris with the intention of excluding those not in the know (and they change words if their meaning becomes known).  I am wondering if some expressions incomprehensible despite my best efforts are an Irish version of the same phenomenon, or maybe just slang.

I’m not a nationalist but I think it’s important for writers writing in English to use their own version of it, as we do in Australia, as Kiwis and Indians and Canadians do. It’s part of who we are, and we lose something if our literature uses some kind of vanilla English. But for an international audience, a publisher can’t assume that others will know or understand or want to learn a distinctive version of English, especially if it’s sprinkled with an extra local language as well.  There are some Maori authors doing this.  Good for them, they have the luxury of having only one Indigenous language to worry about, and there is a strong movement to spread its use into the mainstream.  But I’m never going to learn Maori just so that I can understand an occasional novel, so it’s helpful for international readers if there’s a glossary for anything that can’t be worked out from context. Because at the end of the day, (figuratively and literally, because I’m mostly reading in bed) I do not want to read with Google by my side.

The point is that I had to work at reading this book even though I’m not obsessive about knowing what every word or expression means.  For me, if I’m going to have to struggle with it, a book has to be worth it.  It doesn’t have to be Ulysses, and I don’t even have to like it, but it has to have something significant to say.  Though the critics are full of praise for The Wild Laughter, I’m not entirely convinced.  FWIW I think Steve Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out canvasses the issue of euthanasia with more finesse.


Anyway…

The story traces Manus Black’s journey towards a painful death from cancer.  It’s melancholy reading, especially if you have recently experienced or are facing the loss of a beloved parent.

Like many in Ireland, Manus is a victim of the Celtic Property Bubble, lured by bad advice into catastrophic debt in an effort to escape the poverty that had dogged him all his life.  He has two sons, locked into decades of resentment and conflict, exacerbated by the mother’s overt preference for Cormac and the father’s for Hart.  When Manus asks them to assist him with voluntary euthanasia, the stage is set for a betrayal of Biblical proportions.

The narration is from Hart’s first person perspective.  He is the one who is hard done by: Cormac the flashy entrepreneur has left home and despite Ireland’s ruined economy has made a successful transition to another dodgy business, leaving Hart behind literally and figuratively to live a life of drudgery on the farm.  Cormac isn’t as clever as Hart, and he’s not as good looking, but Dolly, a cynical young woman with her eye on the main chance strings them both along until it suits her to choose. And her choice is no surprise.

The flaw in this novel is the characterisation. There is a suggestion of suppressed violence in Hart’s persona which erupts in an episode of frustration towards the end of the book, but overall, good and evil, weak and strong are too neatly packaged.  These characters make it feel like a weak YA novel, not paying the reader respect for having an understanding of human complexity.  There’s nothing complex about these characters: we don’t know why Nórah is horrible, she just is.  We don’t know why Cormac bullies Hart, he just does.  There’s nothing to explain why after a lifetime of being bullied Hart is so hopelessly naïve, thinking that the Black brothers would put differences aside.  Manus is hopelessly naïve too.  Why does he not foresee (or care about) the legal consequences of what his sons are about to do, and that Cormac and his mother cannot be trusted to share the responsibility for it?  We don’t know, he just doesn’t.  This rudimentary characterisation means that Cormac and his heartless mother are too predictable: anyone can see the betrayal that is coming.  Their perfidy made me think of Cain and Abel, and another innocent who was betrayed: Billy Budd, Sailor. (A priest’s confession, detailing a shocking act of violence against his twin brother, rams home the analogy.)

What is beautifully conveyed is Hart’s love for his father.  A last getaway to the beach ends disastrously because the family are in more close proximity than they are at the farm.  Sliding down the marram grass with a leaden Atlantic Ocean before him, Hart’s tears fall.  Who’d tell me what I needed to hear tomorrow? Who’d keep an eye on me, or spare me a thought?‘ (p.89)  All of us who have lost a loved parent can relate to this…

The title refers to the only thing left to them, with the family and country in decline:

What we could not be without is laughter – the thing austerity couldn’t touch. O-ho, the wild laughter!

Black humour indeed.

Theresa Smith reviewed this novel too.  You can also read the Kirkus Review and this one at The Guardian. 

Author: Caoillinn Hughes
Title: The Wild Laughter
Cover image: Clare Melinsky
Publisher: One World, 2020
ISBN: 9781786077813, pbk., 198 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books


Responses

  1. Although I like reading books best I do find being able to highlight words on a Kindle app that lets me check definition or more meaning really useful when reading books from other cultures. Sounds like there was quite a bit going on in this book. I’ve been enjoying hearing about the MWF from various people. I’ve been too busy this week, to sit still and listen to sessions.

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    • I think you’re right, if I’d been reading this on a Kindle I could have looked things up straight away.
      But then, we have to decide, do we want to be fully immersed in a book and read it without having to stop and research things, or are we willing to poke around using whatever we have in order to make sense of it. I’m willing to do this with some books but not others, and I’m trying to think through what makes the difference.

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      • I agree with that. Looking up things can be very distracting and must admit I will only look up things I can’t work out in context, other wise will keep ploughing through.

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        • That’s why I try to predict, when I’m writing reviews, which things readers might not know, and provide links to explanations, which people can follow or ignore, and sometimes I asterisk a word and provide a definition at the bottom of the post. Translations I usually add in brackets after the foreign words, and I add maps when the book is from a less well-known place. All these are distractions too, but a book review is a different creature to a novel. Reading a book review is not meant to be an immersive experience.

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  2. I do think there is a lot in The Wild Laughter that doesn’t translate well but I enjoyed it very much. You are in for a treat with Jan’s book – it’s fab!

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    • It’s next in my pile:) I’m almost finished Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared, and it’s a terrific book.

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  3. I have my own personal Irish translator, so I rarely come across this problem of not understanding Irish language / slang. But I did laugh at your Lidl misunderstanding … (it’s a supermarket chain similar to Aldi).

    The problem is that publishing these novels in other markets it’s difficult to know what language is understood or not… I mean I had no idea that the word spruiking was Australian and had never clocked that no one in the UK ever used it despite 20 years living there. And with globalisation it’s easy to assume that supermarket chains are known the world over. But I guess it would be handy at times to have a little glossary of foreign words.

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    • Of course, there are bound to be examples that are so everyday in one culture that it wouldn’t occur to anybody to explain them.
      But really, concluding a paragraph with ‘Sin é an scéal’, you’d have to suffering the delusion that Irish culture and language is known the world over to assume that readers could work it out.
      We had a discussion about the use of storytelling idioms in French last week. We start each lesson by sharing our news for the week, and because with C-19 there mostly isn’t any, we’re talking about the films we’ve seen on TV. Describing one I’d watched, I concluded with a literal translation into French of ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ which was my way of saying that the film was a kind of fairytale i.e. not realism. Our teacher explained that the French equivalent, signalling the end of the fairytale is “Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants” [They got married and had lots of children].
      If I had used that expression it would have been correct French and my teacher would have understood the point I was making… but my classmates wouldn’t have understood that I didn’t mean it literally.
      This is why I admire the translators of fiction so much!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read the section about the language.

    I didn’t understand what you had not understood about the Lidl quote, probably because we have those supermarkets in France too.

    Well, welcome to my world when I read Australian lit and have to Google various animals and brekkies and Holden and Datsun and ute…

    See my billet about Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home.:-)

    But I understand your irritation, I felt the same way about Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry.

    PS: Verlan is not used only in Paris.

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    • Yes, exactly!
      But when you are reading Peter Carey, you’re reading in your second language. When I was reading The Wild Laughter, I was reading in my first language…
      Nathalie, wasn’t sure but she thought it was spoken in Lyon too?

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      • French from Québec is bound to have a lot of words a French wouldn’t know.

        Verlan is known everywhere in France.

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        • Thanks, I’ll tell Nathalie:)

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  5. PPS : And “Spruiking” too :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Bradley (Ghost Species, on my TBR) and Caoilinn Hughes (The Wild Laughter, see my review), as they discuss the growing genre of crisis literature, the turbulent events that informed their […]

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