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Prophet Song
by paul lynch
oneworld, 320 pages, $30.28

In the U.K. and Ireland, no literary award is greeted with as much fanfare and public interest as the Booker Prize. The latest recipient, Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, is a novel set in an Ireland of the imagined near future under a far-right government. Eilish, a mother and scientist, is trying to locate her husband, an arrested trade unionist, and to protect her children and elderly father. It is a book that elicits a mixed response: admiration, on the one hand, for Lynch’s achievement in taking us into the darkest, most disturbing corners of life under a dictatorship (and for his rather deft treatment of Ireland drained of religion); and, on the other, bemusement at his non-account of how this dictatorship came to be. 

Lynch is a gifted writer who has thought deeply about the humiliations that accumulate under totalitarianism—the awful dilemmas, the fractures in human relations, the immobilizing sorrows, the raw shocks, and the horrors of the end game: fight or flight? Prophet Song is written in long, dense blocks of prose, causing the pages to take on the appearance of the walls closing in on the characters as the story progresses. Again and again, Lynch finds language and imagery to convey new forms of dislocation and distress in which the distinction between the mind and the material world grows less and less secure.  Each slow step on the descent into hell is minutely observed. There is much in Prophet Song to justify its prize.  

Notably, however, the book offers no real account of the circumstances that set Ireland on the road to emergency powers, arbitrary arrests, rooftop marksmen, lists of the disappeared, civil war, and torture chambers where even children go to suffer and die. There is a teacher pay dispute, which, on its own, does not sound like the last stop on the road to fascism. A pro-regime character gestures vaguely toward “What’s happening outside in the world, what’s coming our way” as some kind of justification. The daughter of another regime supporter describes her father as a “conspiracy nut.” The far-rightness of the dictatorship is signalled rather than labored over.  

Lynch has said that he is more interested in “the personal cost of events,” in questions such as: “What is it like for people to go through these things? What might it be like for us, if we were to allow this to happen?” He makes a fair point. Filling the novel with politics would undoubtedly have deflected attention from the story he wants to tell about how people cope under conditions of societal collapse, military bombardment, sudden and unexplained loss. The novel is also freer to grow other meanings: as an extreme allegory, perhaps, for the arrival of transience and death in all family units, the inevitable, universal picking apart, by forces beyond our control, of what once seemed so tight and all-encompassing.  

On the other hand, I’m not convinced Lynch can expect readers to fully suppress the curiosity nibbling away at their credulity. Covid has provided the Irish with a clear and fresh memory of at least one sequence of events that (under a government priding itself on its progressivism) led to police checkpoints preventing citizens from traveling more than five miles from home. This makes it harder to wave through the vagueness. How exactly does a country that elects liberal, left-wing governments and heads of state in vote after vote, that has not currently a single far-right deputy in its parliament (none has come remotely close), that has just been ranked twelfth globally in the Social Progress Index, end up in no time with a hardline government, not of the left but of the nationalist far right? How is a country with the lowest military expenditure in Europe as a percentage of GDP suddenly able to fill the skies over Dublin with helicopter gunships and warplanes? If you are going to depict a real state, society, and people succumbing to abominable cruelty on an industrial scale, you cannot, just by twirling a pure artistic motive in the air like some kind of exculpatory wand, fully evade questions about how things got there.

And even if the premise of the novel could be successfully sealed off from questions about its prior origins, this does not mean it can be absolved of the need for plausibility within its own timeframe. Here Lynch seems to be asking us to accept a scenario in which the Republic of Ireland, alone in Europe and the Anglosphere, rapidly embraces the most malevolent forms of dictatorship imaginable, accelerating past countries with actual histories of militarism, secret police, dictatorship, and state worship. Again, I’m not sure we can just look the other way because the author would like us to in order to suit his good intentions.  

What of religion? Near the end of the story, there is a flourish about things sung by the prophets, about the endless wickedness of the world, the universal coming of the sword and flame. Interestingly, Lynch completely eschews the temptation (to which, I am certain, lesser writers would have succumbed) to pump life into Ireland’s moribund, authoritarian, Catholic bogeyman and get it marching shoulder to shoulder with the new forces of order and repression. Instead, religion forms not much more than a thin, vestigial presence in the book. We hear of an upcoming funeral and briefly join a wedding reception, but churches, along with streets and hospitals bearing the names of saints, remain peripheral flecks of local color. In a butcher’s shop, there is a religious calendar; fittingly, it is faded and stuck in the past, showing the wrong month of the wrong year. Certain figures of speech have not yet fully taken their leave from everyday language (“I’ve an elderly mother afraid to leave the house God love her”), but they are few and far between.   

On Christmas Day, Eilish’s family goes for a walk on the beach, but not, it seems, to Mass. At Easter, they eat lamb, but again they do not go near a church. “I have no idea why we still celebrate it,” Eilish says. At the most appalling moment in the book, a small prayer “escapes her mouth,” but Eilish has “no faith from which to offer a prayer.” Earlier in the book, her sister in Canada reports that she has “started whispering little prayers” before acknowledging that she doesn’t have a religious bone in her body.

There is an eerie precision therefore to Lynch’s portrayal of what religion in an Ireland of the near future will be like—indeed, what it is already like. Church bells toll across Dublin now and then, but they seem almost to be coming from another country. It is as if the people’s erstwhile faith, accepting the people’s near-total apostasy, has decided to carry on down its own track while it still can, ignoring the people’s new and brutal wars.  

Curiously, then, while remaining wholly uninstructive on the subject of Irish politics, Prophet Song provides readers with an interesting side-light on Irish religion. And in its exploration of how humans confront the inhumane when the latter assumes total control of their lives, it is a notable addition to our modern library of dystopias.

John Duggan writes from Surrey, ­England.

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Image by Mike Weston ABIPP licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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