The Feckless Wonder (uvula_fr_b4) wrote in hipsterbookclub,
The Feckless Wonder

"'God only knows who's givin' information to the Government now'": a review of The Informer.

From Saturday, 12 November to Monday, 14 November, I read Liam O'Flaherty's 1925 novel The Informer (Dublin: Wolfhound Press [an imprint of Merlin Publishing], 2006; ISBN: 0-86327-938-4; 217 pps.).

The second published novel by Liam O'Flaherty, The Informer chronicles the last 12 hours or so of an ex-Irish socialist revolutionary (and ex-policeman...) Gypo Nolan, a none-too-bright slab o'beef who dimes out his frenemy Francis Joseph McPhillip to the Dublin-based, British-controlled police in the wake of the Irish Civil War (probably sometime between 1923-25; O'Flaherty never narrows down the date more specifically than the 1920s). The Informer was filmed twice, first in Britain in 1929 and, most celebratedly, in 1935 by O'Flaherty's cousin, director John Ford; this version won Oscars for Best Director, Best Actor (Victor McLaglen) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Dudley Nichols). (Incidentally, Nichols's screenplay gets big-ups in Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? as the exemplar of what a progressive Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s should aspire to; oddly absent from Schulberg's novel is any mention of Howard J. Green's, Brown Holmes's and Sheridan Gibney's screenplay for the 1932 I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but that's another essay.)

According to the edition that I have, O'Flaherty's socialist views forced him into exile in London (although his Wikipedia page says that he also lived in Hollywood for a time), and caused his books to be banned in Ireland during his lifetime (he died in 1984). The blurb from The Sunday Times states that The Informer is "easily its author's best work"; if this is true, I am less than enthusiastic about reading any more of O'Flaherty's work, although I remain curious about his proletariat-eye-view novel of World War I, Return of the Brute, apparently the first published novel to center around the Tommys instead of the officer class.

Then again, the synopsis on this edition's back cover makes The Informer sound like a very different novel, owing to the erroneous sentence: "In the ominous figure of Gypo....O'Flaherty has created a force from whom no-one is safe." Gypo here is principally dangerous to himself, although his impulsive, ill-considered actions do threaten to bring his erstwhile socialist revolutionary comrades down in an unintentional, bull-in-a-china-shop way; the real menace here is the pervasive paranoia, bad faith, selfishness, self-delusion and near nihilism, in one combination or another, of most of the main characters. The 1935 movie, while incredibly evocative in its noirish photography, set design and silences, presents a very sanitized version of this novel: McLaglen's Gypo informs on a much-nobler Frankie for a semi-noble reason -- to earn the price of a steerage ticket to America for himself and his girlfriend, the unwilling prostitute Katie; O'Flaherty's Nolan, by contrast, grasps for the twenty pounds reward for informing on Frankie (a not-inconsiderable sum for the 1920s, particularly in Dublin) solely to earn the price of admission to a doss house, while his on again-off again girl Katie is both a willing prostitute (and one without a pimp to boot) and a hopeless dope fiend, and is if anything even less a sympathetic character than Gypo or the feral and possibly psychotic Frankie (also called, in the novel, Mac).

The socialist cell commander, Dan Gallagher, is as much a victim as a practitioner of terror: putatively certain as he is to his own intellectual superiority to the mass of humanity (he is also vocally anti-religious, which doubtless put him out of step with most of his fellow countrymen), he is also certain that his very survival is contingent upon how well he is able to cow everyone else, including his followers -- especially, perhaps, his followers -- with fear and paranoia. In this, O'Flaherty's Gallagher is a telling, early sketch of the Stalinist dictator, written and published at a time when most Western leftists were still singing the praises of the socialist revolution as practiced in the recently created USSR.

O'Flaherty tends to give Gallagher far too much space for his self-serving bloviations; a small example of his seemingly endless preachings to Frankie's sister, the "lace-curtain Irish" Mary (unlike the 1935 movie, they are not engaged, and both Mary and Gallagher are quite ambivalent towards each other): "'My own rank and file would be the first to stone me to death. Their damn superstitions always stand in the way of revolutionary beliefs. They talk at International Headquarters about romanticism and leftism and all sorts of freak notions. What do they know about the peculiar type of hog mind that constitutes an Irish peasant?'" (p. 190)

While I was left wanting more of the depictions of the down-and-outs of 1920s Dublin, O'Flaherty's style is less than felicitous and, eventually, wearisome and annoying: his incessant likening of Gypo to an animal-cum-primal force of nature, down to describing his eyebrows "like snouts" in a too-often repeated tag; his puzzling choice of verbs ("crush" where "crash" would seem to be more appropriate) and adjectives ("machinal" where "mechanical" sounds better [p. 150; Chapter XI]); describing Gypo as baring his lips (p. 175; Chapter XIV) and as having "Ethiopian" lips (p. 172; Chapter XIV); and the sweeping, "Big Picture" statements of his omniscient narrator (Gypo, three sheets to the wind at a late night tribunal convened by Gallagher, happily contemplates cracking a few skulls to get away, to which the narrator pronounces: "It was that savage joy that is always present in the Irish soul in time of danger, the great fighting spirit of our race, born of the mists and the mountains and the gurgling torrents and the endless clamour of the sea." [p. 147]; Chapter XI]; in the wake of Gallagher and Mary snogging, their emotions are diagnosed as follows: "A hot feeling of joyous exaltation pervaded their bodies. But it was not the exaltation of love. It was an abandoned sadness born of grief. The grief of two human souls clinging together for solace. It was beautiful and pure like love, that exaltation, born of fear, and of the eternal melancholy of the entrammelled Irish soul, struggling in bondage." [p. 183; Chapter XV]) that caused this reader to roll his eyes rather than nod his head in agreement at O'Flaherty's profundity; all of these failings combined to finally dissipate my good will somewhere between halfway and two-thirds of the way through the book.

At this remove, it would have been helpful if O'Flaherty had provided a little more background to the conflict, and shown more of the conflicts between the various revolutionary factions; to this end, the 2006 Ken Loach movie The Wind That Shakes the Barley is more informative, although the events it shows likely occur two or three years before the events of The Informer.

I was also disappointed to learn that the ending of the 1935 movie is essentially faithful to the ending of O'Flaherty's short novel: a dubious sort of redemption whose absurdity undercuts its supposed uplift. I find it hard to believe that it mollified O'Flaherty's contemporary critics; if anything, it probably had the opposite effect.

*cross-posted from my LJ.


  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic