18 March 2018

Sorj Chalandon: Retour à Killybegs | Return to Killybegs (2011)

Sorj Chalandon used to be a journalist for the daily paper Libération, specialising in particular in reporting on the problems in Northern Ireland. He wrote the novel Mon traître in 2008, which was inspired by his friendship with Denis Donaldson (1950–2006), a staunch member of the IRA and Sinn Féin who became a British agent. In Mon traître a French character (obviously based on Chalandon himself) named Antoine Chalons – a luthier, or maker of stringed instruments – appears as a friend of Tyrone Meehan's. In 2011 Chalandon returned to the subject with Retour à Killybegs (translated as Return to Killybegs), another fictionalised account of Chalandon's Story, although whereas Mon traître is narrated by Antoine, Retour à Killybegs is narrated by Tyrone, who was born in 1925 and died in 2007.

The structure of the book is in two essential parts: chapters that run more or less chronologically from the 1920s to 2007, interspersed with far fewer and much shorter chapters from 24 December 2006 – when Tyrone returns to his empty family home in Killybegs, where his strongly Republican father used to take out his frustrations on other people (and animals), but mainly Tyrone – to 3 April 2007, when Tyrone is murdered by a Republican group opposed to the peace process. (In reality the Real IRA admitted to the murder, although this name is not mentioned in the novel.)

This is to some extent a violent and gruesome book, beginning with Tyrone's father Padraig's beatings of him, through the general violence in Ireland at the time, the beatings of prisoners by the wardens, the prisoner's protests at not being treated as political prisoners, refusing to wear prison uniform and not washing, smearing their own shit on the walls, a hunger strike in the background, etc.

But the main thrust of the story is about Tyrone's betrayal of the political organisation he lived for: he has accidentally killed Danny, one of his friends, during a shoot-out with the opposition, MI5 have the bullets to prove and to broadcast the fact, and (by indirectly threatening his son and his wife) blackmail him into becoming an informant. There is really no way he can turn the offer down. But come the ceasefire and the setting up of the peace process, Tyrone's role as traitor will out, and his return to Killybegs, he knows, is a return to death. Chalandon makes Tyrone eighty-one here, although he (the real Denis Donaldson, that is) was of course much younger.

Retour à Killybegs is a compelling read, and received the Grand prix du roman de l'Académie française for 2011. I can't say that I've seen the excellent cover before, but this edition comes from'Le Grand Livre du Mois' book club, which I found in a book exchange depot.

My other Sorj Chalandon posts:
Sorj Chalandon: Profession du père
Sorj Chalandon: La Légende de nos pères

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