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Singing about the dark times

In his fifth novel, Prophet Song, Paul Lynch brings home the disruption the world is currently facing and holds a mirror to our dystopian society. The Irish writer imagines a conflicted Republic of Ireland slowly slipping into an inevitable autocracy in the wake of a political and economic upheaval sponsored by the State.

It begins when the National Alliance Party (NAP) changes the fabric of police services: by introducing a new secret police service and enacting an Emergency Powers Act to contain the law-and-order situation that is only beginning to unravel. The government is no longer a government but a ‘regime’; its priorities shift from governance to surveillance and censorship. It reaches the homes of its citizens and ordinary people are screened, and deemed a ‘security risk’ by the State.

At the centre of it all is Eilish Stack, a scientist trying to reason through this tyranny. Reality strikes her when her husband, a teacher and a trade unionist, disappears from a rally, leaving behind a fatherless home with four children. Eilish’s life only goes downhill from here. Slowly, “war shapes itself around them”. Escape is recommended but her heart is bound by the anchors at home: a father with dementia who does not remember his wife’s death, let alone the war outside his door; a husband who has been detained and not returned; a teenager who refuses to accept the travesty or run from it; and a young son who is convinced that the “worm is turning” and has gotten hold of their family and that it must be “spit out”. It is when all hope eludes her that she decides to leave with the crumbs that remain of her life. She remembers her sister’s words — “History is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave” — and concludes that it is more than that: “History is the silent record of people who could not leave.”

Witness and victim

Eilish is both the witness as well as the victim of this war between the regime and the rebels. Through her eyes, readers experience her circumstances and the denial that comes with it, which turns into fear, which in turn becomes rage, and concludes in the form of an acceptance sort of grief. She becomes the face of sedition, political volatility, aberration of democracy and personal liberty, and international oblivion, all in one. Her life becomes a statistic of detention, dystopia, displacement and death.

Prophet Song smells of déjà vu: imposed curfews; prohibited foreign media; internet shut down; schools closed; prices of milk and medicine beyond reach; youth handling weapons; exploitation in the name of an ‘exit tax’ — horrors which are not so unimaginable in today’s world. Following the legacy of George Orwell and Margaret Atwood — of using fiction to revolutionise the world — Paul Lynch writes with unflinching clarity, of a world that is real and will continue to live as long as power and politics do.

Prophet Song is a stellar example of how one book can capture what has been observed by and antagonised many, for decades. It opens with an epigraph from Bertolt Brecht, German playwright and the father of epic theatre: “In the dark times will there be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

Art for activism

The novel reinstates an artist’s faith in art as a tool for activism. Lynch pays his own dues as an artist by writing an elaborate and formidable tale of an age-old political reality of many, and by personifying victims of political whim: from Sudan to Syria, from Ukraine to Congo, from Palestine to Niger. The message is simple: “The prophet sings not of the end of the world but of what has been done and what will be done and what is being done to some but not others, that the world is always ending over and over again in on one place but not another”.

For pages together, Lynch writes long, breathless sentences. The endless continuity acts as a reminder of the urgency of his story. The absence of punctuation, dialogue tags or quotation marks and the overall frugality of his writing translates faithfully into Eilish’s struggle, frustration, and to a great extent, her suffocation, making Prophet Song a timely and forever relevant novel. It captures the sensitivity of today’s times in essence, perhaps as an extended ode to Warsan Shire’s poem, Home, and the dissolution of all its meaning. “You only leave home, when home won’t let you stay… no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

Among four Irish authors on this year’s Booker longlist and two other Pauls (Murray and Harding) — all three on the shortlist — Lynch stands out in his ability to find a global voice in a local story and vice-versa. With this unique ability and the luck of the Irish, it is not surprising that it won this year’s Booker. If anything, it is well-deserved.

(Published 02 December 2023, 17:12 IST)

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