Fascinating Book, Skewed Perspective

Say Nothing:

A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

by Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing provides a riveting narrative of the abduction and disappearance of a thirty-eight year old mother of ten during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1972. Patrick Keefe’s great strength as a writer is to focus unblinkingly on each tiny detail—to sketch breath-taking scenes and graphic characters—and to create a spiraling momentum with new discoveries and surprises around every corner. It’s an intensely intimate account that must necessarily open to concentric circles of context—political setting, economic condition, historical flow, cultural significance. And here’s where Keefe’s problems begin.

Some nonfiction writers insert themselves into their stories, revealing standpoint, perspective, and personal point-of-view, striving for both transparency and transformation. Others work hard to stand above or outside the action, aspiring to objectivity and offering, then, a god’s-eye view. Patrick Keefe is in the second camp.

This means that he never adequately examines his own assumptions about the tangled realities on the ground in Northern Ireland, his own received wisdom about Great Britain and its place in the world. These don’t require serious exploration or reflection because they’re simply common sense, the things that all intelligent and right-thinking people understand. The problem, of course, is that there’s nothing more insistent and dogmatic than common sense. And that leads to assured moral judgments without either serious self-reflection or accountability.

His curiosity and empathy—the foundation of understanding, let alone discovering any tentative “truth”—extend to the victims of the Provisional Irish Republican Army campaigns (including disillusioned soldiers like Dolours Price) but not to the Provos themselves. Brendan Hughes is a three-dimensional character; Gerry Adams is a cartoon (at one point Keefe nods approvingly as Adams is compared to Charles Manson).

Certain Provos are referred to as “terrorists” so often that the designation becomes practically a first name; the British at their most brutal are “troops” or “the Brigadier” or “the Prime Minister.” Patrick Keefe might have asked: What motivates the Provos? Describe. What do they think they’re up to? What allows them to inflict (and suffer) such pain? What is terrorism? What are the limits of political action?

Further: What is Falls Road? Describe. What is ethnic cleansing? What is a “minority”?

Interestingly Patrick Keefe opens with a marvelous epigram from Viet Thanh Nguyen, but he never grasps the hallmark of Nguyen’s work: the willingness to dive into rather than flee from contradiction. Keefe fails again and again to explore the contradictions that loom up right in front of him: What does it mean to commit oneself to a cause (or a nation or a religion) while retaining a mind of one’s own? In a landscape so twisted by violence, oppression, and exploitation, how does one live a life that doesn’t make a mockery of one’s values? How does one see a violent uprising in light of the conditions that ignited it? He doesn’t explore the deepest questions—What does it mean to regard one another deeply and hopefully? What are the consequences of our failure to do so?—because his curiosity and empathy have exhausted themselves running along a single track.

But as the friend who gave me the book pointed out, if I wanted a book to tell the story of Ireland from the 50s to the  present from a progressive point of view, this isn’t it. And it really can’t be. Keefe told the story he wanted to tell, and he acknowledges  that he spent less time on British atrocities than on the Provos—his book is about only one terrible tragedy among thousands—but in a way that’s a cop-out.

The title of Keefe’s book is taken from a poem about the Troubles by the great Seamus Heany: Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. It refers to the code of silence adopted by the revolutionaries. Patrick Keefe has said something (he’s a solid reporter), but not nearly enough. Fascinating book, skewed perspective.

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