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Posted January 16, 2012
At a pub before evening mass, Heinrich Boll observes a shrewish woman harassing and threatening a hungry child that she thinks is using too much vinegar on his chips. By chance Boll notes that "the savior was approaching"...a banged-up brute who pretends to kiss her hand, offers her a ten-shilling note, then interjects, "May I request you, Madam, to regard these ten shillings as sufficient payment for the six drops of vinegar?"
The woman takes the money, embarrassed, and the man left her with one last reminder, "May I moreover remind you that it is time for the evening service? Please convey my respectful regards to the priest."
Oh snap. Such a moment captured is one of the unforgettable scenes in Boll's Irish Journal, a collection of essays he wrote about his visit to the Emerald Isle in the 1950s that comes across much like a love letter to the Irish people. In the event above, he doesn't just leave it at his own observation, he brings it to the reader's consciousness, by making us wonder about the benefactor:
"The man who lives poetry instead of writing it pays ten thousand percent interest. Where was he, the dark, blood-stained drunk, who had had enough string for his jacket but not for his shoes?"
Just outside, in the same scene as above, he depicts the buildings:
"King John's Castle reared grimly out of the darkness, a tourist attraction hemmed in by tenements from the twenties, and the tenements of the twentieth century looked more dilapidated than King John's Castle of the thirteenth; the dim light from the weak bulbs could not compete with the massive shadow of the castle, everything was submerged in sour darkness."
The image he creates mixes characters caught between faith and tradition and modern change, yet still capable of vast generosity in the face of poverty. Anger mixes with empathy, and somehow the way he connects the fight over "vinegar" to the "sour" light makes it contain so much depth. And of course, the bum's reminder to the woman about mass, a dig at her less-than-charitable spirit, shows how Boll could see the irony in the situation.
Many of the images that Boll writes about are not far off from our pop culture image of Ireland, a place romanticized by many as a place of quaint cottages and endless green. (Those of us unfortunate enough to have seen the film, PS I Love You have further embellished that image with scenes of Gerard Butler and Jeffrey Dean Morgan meandering the countryside, spilling charm everywhere. Neither of whom are Irish.) Having come off a semester of Irish Studies, I realize that the reality is far different, yet the timing of Boll's trip and his ability to write about the people of Ireland without delving into the politics make this a lovely read.
In "Skeleton of a Human Habitation", Boll writes of the abandoned village he discovers on a walk with his family. "Everything not made of stone gnawed away by rain, sun, and wind--and time, which patiently trickles over everything; twenty-four great drops of time a day, the acid that eats everything away as imperceptibly as resignation." He describes the village much as a human body, with spine and heart and limbs--he puts the church as the head. He observes that the town has been left alone and not plundered, and how the doorways and walls, while decrepit, still remain. Only his own children, outsiders (the Bolls are Ge