Eoghan Smith: A Provincial Death
Our hero is Smyth. If he has a first name we never know it. When we first meet him, he is clinging to a rock some two to three kilometres off the Western Irish coast. He is first seen by a sprat which has been caught by an Atlantic puffin eager to feed her fledgeling. We will meet the sprat later in the book.
So how did he get to onto rock? Well, he does not seem to know, at least not yet. There must have been a boat but he has no recollection of any boat and there is no boat to be seen. He remembers running through a conifer forest but that is all. His phone is dead so he cannot phone for help so he is stuck.
The book recounts how he gradually recovers his memory of how and why he is on the rock and his various thoughts about his life, his situation and his literary interests. We learn that he is more or less alone in life. His mother died of cancer and he has had no further contact with his father who may or may not be alive. He was an only child. He was married with a daughter but they left. He seems to have no friends and no romantic liaison. He had once written a novel about a young student who discovers he is compelled to live without guarantees. The book started with the funeral of a dead mother.
He has, perhaps not unsurprisingly, a fairly negative outlook on life. He quotes Daša Drndić who states When the death of someone close occurs, in some people the sense of guilt (because of anger) blossoms to unbearable dimensions. And there are various ways out: from autocastration, self-harm, mania or depression, suicide, or murder, or writing. He also refers to Kierkegaard that specialist in dread.
Our author has written a book on John Banville (a thoroughly miserable writer in my opinon) and our hero started to write an article on Banville and Iris Murdoch, wittily entitled “See The Sea, See The Sea, The Sea” (Banville wrote a book called The Sea while Murdoch wrote one calledThe Sea, The Sea). Apart from the Smith/Smyth name that is the only obvious connection between author and character.
As far as as his current plight is concerned, he likens himself to the starving hero of Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger, though I have to say I saw more similarity with another literary hero, Pincher Martin, though I suspect he may not have read this book as no-one reads Golding any more, except for Lord of the Flies. He also mentions Synge‘s Riders to the Sea which features quite a few drowned Irish people.
There are many literary references in this book and, at the end, the author kindly gives us a detailed list of how and when they died. Just in case you were not aware from the title or, indeed, the subject matter, that death was a key theme of this book.
Apart from being rescued he has various concerns. Will he drown? More than once he imagines losing his grip and falling into the sea, with his body washed up on a beach with the other detritus or even eaten by sharks. It is also getting hot as the sun beats down on him and, as his hair his thinning, so he is worried about sun burn. He has already lost a tooth, has a sore foot and has lost a shoe and sock.
We gradually learn what might have been at least the start of his adventure. He had applied for and got a job as a researcher for a woman whose name he initially forgets but gradually remembers is McGovern. She is an expert on the Moon. They study the Moon and you might, as I did, learn a few things about the Moon you did not know. Did you know that it was formed from a hypothesised planet called Theia? I certainly did not and nor did Willy Lamport. (We will come to him.) McGovern has a fairly negative view, looking forward to the day when the Earth will end and will be destroyed by the heat of the Sun.
Anyway, Dr McGovern has done her calculations and determined that the Moon was going to crash down onto Earth that very day. She had locked herself in her office and then fled, presumably to find a safer place. Smyth follows her, meeting the aforementioned Willy Lamport, a fisherman, at the harbour.
While on the rock, Smyth, as mentioned, has a not unsurprising negative view of the situation. He feels a deep sadness and a deep loneliness and because of this he has never felt more alive. However, he also feels he may just as well drown as he has nothing left to live for, sans wife, daughter, parents and, as he has now recalled, job. Even when he finally realises he can, with difficulty, climb up the rock where there is a platform and the aforementioned sprat, now deceased, he feels these are his last few hours on Earth.
I should mention one other character – the author. He throws in a few comments now and then. For example, he states that Smyth is not worth bothering about and we should abandon him. Not only does Smyth not have the support of family and friends but not even of his creator, poor man. It is not surprising that he says I know virtually nothing about myself, who I am, what I am, and yet soon I will perish on this rock and my life will be over.
Yes, this is a thoroughly miserable book, albeit tinged with some humour, often black. We cannot help but feel sorry for Smyth but, like the author, we feel his death would not be a great tragedy and clearly the way he might die is not going to be an easy death. But here we are, just off the coast of Ireland, so where are the boats?
First published in 2022 by Dedalus