16
Sep
14

The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan

The Year of the FrenchThe Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan

An immersive novel, Thomas Flanagan’s historical novel takes readers right into the muck and bogs of 18th century Ireland, it’s prejudices and injustices, it’s poetry and cruelty. It’s pretty great.
For years, Flanagan was a professor of Irish fiction, specializing in 19th century Irish novelists, writers who were basically blotted out by James Joyce’s explosive fiction. An American, Flanagan spent a lot of time there and befriended several writers (including Seamus Deane, who contributes a short introduction to the NYRB edition of this book). He knew the country.

It comes through in his book: the rhythm of the dialogue, the gloomy ambience and snatches of lyricism embedded in his book. It has a dense feeling, like a layered work of history. And it’s based on actual events, albeit ones generally overshadowed by the Napoleonic wars and the later bloody struggles in Ireland.

In 1798, after years of prodding by Irish nationals, a small band of French soldiers landed in Ireland, hoping to stir up local rebellions and take Dublin. A short time before, sections of the island had rebelled against the English, although they’d been wiped out by the time the French landed. After several skirmishes, the English defeated the small French force; a few years later, Ireland was incorporated into England and during another bloody struggle, some 30,000 Irish died.

Flanagan’s novel takes these remote events and brings them to life. He mixes his action from narration to letters, diary entries and excerpts from histories written by his characters. Large sections are told via local priest Arthur Broome’s memoirs, written some years after the events, but others come from the diary of Sean MacKenna, a schoolmaster. Letters, other memoirs and diaries complete the multi-angled portrait.

When Flanagan bounces between characters and points of view, I’m reminded of Rashomon’s multiple angles of the same simple story. Several characters are English and look down on the Irish, often in a patricidal, coolly dismissive attitude that mixes loathing with a vague sense of problem solving:

“I know these people,’ Edgeworth said. “They are not governed by reason. All the laws and pamphlets ever written mean less to them than a poem. I have written against the dangers of poetry in this country. It is their only academy… hatred breeding hatred. I have tried. No one listened to me. ” (pg 399)

Meanwhile, the Irish characters have a more complex sense of their well-being. Several join the United Irishmen and fight alongside the French, while others (like MacKenna) stay away the fighting. Many often express the same lines about how they can finally escape the oppressive English while others only want to live their lives in peace, hoping to escape eviction by their absentee landlords.

It’s a sad, almost pathetic story. The Irish are quickly caught up with a charismatic French general, Jean-Joesph Humbert, who leads them in a form of guerrilla warfare and marches them to oblivion in the small town of Ballinamuck, the place of the pig. The English, who often say how poorly they feel for these downtrodden people, stamp them down like animals, slicing them down in battle and burning down everything in their path. It’s a sad, tragic story and one that continued up through the time Flanagan wrote this novel.

Written in 1978, The Year of the French kept reminding me of America’s actions in Vietnam a few years earlier. There too, the Americans destroyed villages in order to save them, went after local insurrection and fought decisive battles against smaller forces. There too, the larger, almost colonial force was never quite able to beat out rebellion; when Flanagan wrote this novel, Ireland was still in The Troubles, with the IRA setting off bombs and the British army patrolling the streets. Some 200 years on and the same fights were being waged, the same people’s lives wasted in senseless violence.

Rating: 8/10. One of the more dense books I’ve read this year and something that sucked me into it’s world, The Year of the French is a great historical novel. Flanagan captures the troubled spirit of these times: the conflicted villagers, the loyal British soldiers, even the mad landlord Tyrawley, a man who wants to help people but just doesn’t see the Irish as people. Recommended, especially for people into British history.

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