Sorj Chalandon : Retour à Killybegs

Retour à Killybegs is a work of fiction, but heavily based on the life and death of Denis Donaldson, a high-ranking member of Sinn Féin and the IRA who spied for the British for 20 years and was murdered in 2006 in County Donegal.

(details below)

Some aspects of the story are radically changed, not least the fact that Tyrone Meehan, the spy in the book, was born in 1925 rather than 1950, as Donaldson was. This allows the early part of the book to be set before and during the second world war, and for Meehan’s father to have wanted to go and fight the Spanish fascists in 1936. It also brings in some interesting background information about the relationship between Ireland and the UK during the war, and the attitude of those fighting against British rule in Northern Ireland (‘Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’). Other events in the life of Donaldson are shifted by a year or so, for some reason, e.g. his death is placed in 2007 rather than 2006. For the rest the biographical details of the real and fictional characters often match up pretty well (although not their personalities, as Donaldson was apparently a notorious womaniser), and the details of the press conference announcing Meehan’s unmasking, his interrogation by the IRA, his final months in a run-down cottage in County Donegal and his death are almost a historical account of the end of Donaldson’s life.

Chalandon does an excellent job of describing how Donaldson became a spy, the sort of pressure that was put on him and what went on in his head during the whole process, and I was often reminded of some recent films about the DDR. One aspect of the story which was completely unchanged in the book was the fact that neither Donaldson nor anyone else ever actually revealed why he allowed himself to be persuaded to start spying for the British, saying only that “he was recruited after compromising himself during a vulnerable time in his life”. Chalandon invents a motive for Meehan which bears a certain relationship to a certain fact of Donaldson’s life: in 1970 he became a bit of a hero after taking part in the Battle of Short Strand (not the riots of August 1969, as in the book), in which someone on the republican side was apparently shot dead accidentally by the IRA, although they blamed his death on the loyalists. In the book, Meehan accidentally shoots Danny Finley, his own leader, then keeps quiet about it for ten years while he becomes a hero and Danny Finley a martyr, and this fact is used to blackmail him into spying. He can’t face the shame and the loss of his hero status which he feels sure will befall him if the truth gets out. The incident has been blown up into a historic event, and has even had a song written about it, so it’s just too late to admit the truth. To be fair to Meehan, he’s also put under pressure in other ways: if he doesn’t cooperate he will go back to the filth of Long Kesh, his wife will go to prison, and his son, who’s serving a life sentence for killing a policeman, will be transferred to a Scottish prison where he’s unlikely to survive for long. All these forms of pressure would have been available to use on many IRA members – most of them had wives and children, and there were often several active members in the same family – but I can imagine that the use of such tactics might be more likely to result in anger and extra resistance than in a desire to cooperate. The same applies to all the other, more positive arguments which are put forward: the idea that he will be helping the peace process, for instance (an argument which, funnily enough, is brought up by his old childhood friend turned monk when he comes to visit him near the end). In Meehan’s case they have a much more personal weapon to use against him, i.e. his own shame at having lied. And so he goes on to lead a double life for twenty years. I was reminded of the strange life of Jean-Claude Romand, as described in Emmanuel Carrère’s book L’Adversaire: what starts with one little lie, or even with the failure to mention something unpleasant, can take off and grow into something monstrous and unstoppable, speeding towards inevitable disaster.

In actual fact I’m pretty certain that the real Denis Donaldson, as well as being 25 years younger, was more assertive, more in control of the situation and more adept at handling his handlers, but he must have experienced many of the feelings ascribed to Meehan; it would be interesting to know whether he was quite such an alcoholic. I found some aspects of the story hard to believe. Would MI5 really have organised a fake lottery with hundreds of tickets, supposedly celebrating the opening of a non-existent shop, all just to give Meehan an excuse to go to Paris? Especially as it meant his wife going along and having to be kept in the dark, and taken to the opera while Meehan met his handlers. Surely there are easier ways to find a secure place to talk? The real Donaldson did a lot of international travelling, on business for the IRA, and that would have provided enough opportunities for contact outside of Ireland, but it looked to me as if Chalandon just wanted to make the story more exciting, and perhaps also more French. While reading the book I had a similar feeling regarding the role played by Antoine, which seemed unnecessary and irrelevant, adding nothing to the main story, and had presumably just been added to make the book more interesting to a French audience. I found out later, however, that one of Chalandon’s earlier books Mon traître, which was also inspired by the Donaldson case, was actually told from the point of view of Antoine (‘le petit Français’), who was inspired by Chalandon himself, so I suppose anyone who knew the first book would find Antoine’s presence in this one more logical.

The book is fast-moving and easy to read, although I found Chalandon’s style a bit irritating at times: he writes almost entirely in short, incomplete sentences, and I sometimes had the feeling I was reading an advertising brochure rather than a novel. Apart from that it’s very well written, with an excellent portrayal of Meehan’s childhood, his relationship with his violent drunk of a father (plenty of real Irish misery here, enough to rival Angela’s Ashes!), and how he took over the ideals of that frustrated rebel and made them his own. His description of Meehan’s career in the IRA, his role as a spy and life in republican Belfast generally, seem to me to be very true to life, and the book certainly contains a lot of useful background information for anyone who’s at all interested in Irish history. I was also impressed by his portrayal of the life of a republican prisoner inside a Northern Irish prison, especially in Long Kesh during the ‘dirty protest’. He vividly describes a level of hate, brutality and physical violence which are difficult to imagine in post-war Europe outside of Yugoslavia, even if the business of torturing prisoners to obtain information was better handled by Jérôme Ferrari in Où j’ai laissé mon âme. I found myself wondering why on earth ‘Europe’ didn’t do something about such intolerable conditions. I wouldn’t qualify this book as a literary masterpiece, and I don’t think Chalandon is quite up to the standard of writers like Emmanuel Carrère, Jérôme Ferrari or (a more relevant comparison perhaps) Ian McEwan, but he’s someone who can write well and has something interesting to say, not just about Ireland but about the way people’s minds work and how they can be manipulated. I may well read more of him.

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Details:

author Sorj Chalandon
title Retour à Killybegs
first published 2011
language français
publisher / version read Le Livre de Poche
ISBN 978-2-253-16456-2
read 01/10/2014 – 10/10/2014

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