Saturday, June 9, 2012

On "The Last Storyteller" by Frank Delaney ****

Delaney's Last Storyteller is an ambitious novel that seeks to connect history, myth, and personal reality, all in the guise of a tale--or series of tales--about recently independent Ireland of the 1950s.

The main storyline focuses on Ben MacCarthy, a government employee whose job is to collect folklore from around the country. The setting is an Ireland being torn apart by violence--the fight over the freeing of Northern Ireland from British control supported by a group of rebels that would become known as the Irish Republican Army and the desire to appease the British supported by an Irish government happy enough to have at least three-quarters of the island out from under the English Commonwealth.

Or is that the story and the time? For in fact, The Last Storyteller includes many stories within it. First there are the various subplots. Ben is obsessed with his wife, Venetia, who left him for an abusive American scoundrel. Meanwhile, his story-gathering career brings him into contact with Jimmy Bermingham, a tough guy and sometime crook who gets Ben involved with the IRA against his will. Extricating himself from the situation becomes a major part of the action of the novel, but the contacts prove useful later in possibly the novel's key event, one that brings Ben to question his life and his moral grounding.

And then, there's John Jacob O'Neill, the traditional storyteller, whose stories and presence lends comfort to Ben--but whose stories also prove to have something of the aura of both history and prophecy about them. They teach, they entertain, and they foretell. And in fact, several of O'Neill's tales appear in the novel's very pages. And it is in this manner that Ben's personal journey becomes something of history and something of myth (for, Delaney seems to be saying, we are all living history, which in turn is bound one day to become legend). History teaches, and it does so largely because we are doomed to repeat it--and as a result, it also tells the future. Each tale in the collection then becomes a message to Ben, about what he should do and/or what he will do.

A storyteller is something quite different from a novelist. The novelist works on the written page, but a storyteller works in front of an audience. Hence, the O'Neill's stories have the feel of Old World fantasy, even as they often involve true elements from Ireland's far-off past. If you like fairy tales, legends, or myths, then these are surely tales you'll enjoy, well told and and full of masterful turns of phrase. (Among the most easily remembered tales for me is  a story O'Neill tells about a king in a land where it always rains.)

Delaney's project has extended beyond the novel, however. Taken with the tales of the storyteller, he has decided to write out various other pieces of Irish lore (and pieces inspired by such writing) in the spirit of O'Neill and to make them available as e-books on his website. They also include introductions that explain the history behind the creation of each tale. Curious readers can find the e-books here.

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