Monday, 11 March 2019

Country, by Michael Hughes.

            Irish novelist Michael Hughes has presented us with a modern version of Homer’s epic poem ‘The Iliad’, and what a gift it is:  ancient Greece becomes Ireland in 1996, the time of The Troubles, the time of a fragile ceasefire between the IRA and Sinn Fein (the Greek Armies) and the Protestants and Unionists of the North (the Trojan forces).
            The ceasefire is not going well for the local squads of the IRA.  They have snitches and touts in their midst, and a big internal stoush has erupted between the OC (Officer Commanding) Pig – called so because he farms pigs, smuggles pigs, eats pigs, and is a f---ing pig by nature – and Achil, a sniper so renowned and feared for his courage and skill that the British soldiers will not leave the local base if they hear that he’s about.  Achil is the IRA’s star, a true warrior they all want to be like, de ye see, so his squad points out to Pig the error of his ways:  he’d better make up with Achil or their next operation, scheduled after the ceasefire fails (as it surely must) – will fail too, without their greatest asset.  It’s kiss and make up time!
            But Achil has had enough.  Enough of the fighting and the killing for that  impossible dream, the unification of Ireland:  he’s going back to his Home county and his family.  No more fighting. 
            The lads are horrified, and true to prophecy, the next operation they mount when the ceasefire is broken is a disaster;  they are lucky to escape with their lives, and the hated British in their impregnable base are laughing and  not going anywhere – until one of their number, a much-decorated SAS officer, mercilessly kills Achil’s dearest friend Pat in the town square, causing Achil to swear vengeance and a gruesome death for Pat’s killer.  ‘I go to end that murderer, but not for him.  For his country.  To show them evil doesn’t go unpunished, that there’s consequences to taking the innocence of a quiet wee land and trampling it down.  They need to feel the pain we do.  They need to see what it is they’ve done, know it in their guts and in their blood.  They’ve called it on themselves. It’s about justice.  If they’re let think it’s right to rob the freedom of another people, that we accept them as our betters just because they say they are, then we surrender any claim to self-determination.  If we don’t fight, then we have nothing worth fighting for’.
            With prose as harsh and relentless as gunfire Hughes takes us through to the inevitable conclusion of Achil’s revenge, travelling the corridors of power in Whitehall to the bar of a border pub where the SAS officer’s superior bargains for his body:  This is hardly the first time that a writer has produced a modern version of ancient stories, but it is a rarity that Homer’s wonderful poem has been portrayed with so much vigour and power.  Even if readers know nothing of ‘The Iliad’, Hughes’s wonderful book is a page-turning thriller in its own right.  SEVEN STARS!!          

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