John MacKenna’s new short-story collection, Once We Sang Like Other Men, consists of 13 stories, the first and the last stories with the same characters.
The last story also has the function of coda. You quickly learn that you hold in your hand a book written by a seasoned writer.
The stories have a common denominator, the character of the Captain, a hypnotic leader of a group of rebels. We never meet him; the Captain has been killed somewhere in the Middle East, and all that we discover about him is told to us by his followers over the course of the tales.
In “Go Home to Your Friends”, we get hints that only the ones close to him really got to know him well. “This photograph is like those books they’ve written about the Captain. It tells you things but not everything,” Lily says of a picture in her home.
Lily, a photographer, is in relationship with Jude, who was one of the Captain’s more radical followers. She tells us that the Captain was a talented musician: “I never read about how fine a singer he was …”
The main character of “The Angel Said”, a choirmaster in Russia, tells us something similar: “And sometimes, when the Captain sang, I’d strum his guitar and play the harmonica.”
We learn little about the Captain’s politics, just that “he was following a middle ground that was neither wholly political nor wholly committed to the revolution”, according to Jude, in “Go Home to Your Friends”.
There are a few details about his death. In “My Beloved Son”, the wife of one of the followers touches scars on his body, left there by the bullets that killed the Captain.
In “Water of Life”, one of the followers is back in the country where his master died, and, with his daughter, is trying to find the place where he and others took the Captain after the assassination.
There is a quote on the first pages of the book: “He now went up into hills and summoned those he wanted. So they came to him and he appointed twelve, they were to be his companions.”
The meaning of this quote should be clear to us: it’s letting us know that we are dealing with a work that was influenced by the Bible.
The Captain is the key (I will call him this, but it’s clear who MacKenna had in mind when he created this character). His followers, we can surely call them apostles now, are secondary to him.
The majority of them try to build their lives again after his death (“My Beloved Son”, “Go Home to Your Friends”), and forget about the past (“Buying and Selling”, “Once We Sang Like Other Men #1 and #2).
For all of them, the time spent following the Captain was the best time of their lives. Now, they are trying to find sense in the many different places that their lives have led them.
In “The Word”, one follower, a priest, has nothing to protect him from loneliness. In “My Beloved Son”, another is trying to fix his family; his wife left him, because he couldn’t cope after the Captain died.
I found it hard to find any compassion for the fates of his followers. Some of the stories seem too short, and the way they are constructed makes everything secondary to the character of the Captain.
The characters at times seem one-dimensional, lacking vices or what the Russians call “metaphysical dirt”.
St Augustine modernised Christian theology with his idea that evil is just the absence of good. With that one sentence, he fought off the Manichaean view of the world that good and evil are equally important.
The Captain is killed by the army, but that’s all we know about his adversary. There is no character who personifies evil, because evil is just the absence of good.
I struggled at first to understand the concept behind this collection of stories, with the characters who wouldn’t have stuck in your memory, the events spread across the world, and the religious symbolism.
But now I think I understand what the author had in mind.
Orthodox Christians worship icons, paintings that portray Jesus, his mother, the saints and angels. The paintings are simple, with no more than one or two figures. Those portrayed are never smiling, and the symbolism is obvious.
The idea of the icon allows us to understand MacKenna’s book better.
The main purpose of an icon is to be contemplated, not to be interpreted. Compassion is also useless; saints have eternal life awaiting them.
Even the characters see the Captain as an icon. Lily says in “Go Home to Your Friends” that the Captain was never seen smiling: “I never seen a picture that showed Captain smiling. It’s as though no one believes he ever smiled.”
Two stories, “Sacred Heart” and “Resurrection” are great examples of how MacKenna uses Christian symbolism.
In the former, he tells us the story of a father and a son on holidays. One day, the man thinks he sees the child find a human heart on the beach – but he’s not sure, and neither are we.
In the latter, a son is fantasising about resurrection; his father has died, and he hopes he will talk to him once again.
An attentive reader will feel uneasy with one motif in this collection, a belief held and espoused by several characters.
In “Buying and Selling” one of the Captain’s followers, Thaddeus, talking about a friend of his, a young journalist in search of a good story, says that “Ideas were one thing but opportunities to change the world were real thing.” That statement we can live with.
But in “Absent Children”, a woman who is grieving for her children, who died in an accident, tells the main character, a middle-aged man working on her husband’s farm, that “Reading books doesn’t make you a better person. I used to read a lot of books and they had nothing to offer when it mattered.”
Finally, in “The Word”, the main character, a priest, is in a cemetery, and he has a recollection of his teacher making him write down notes on a Byron poem, and the narrator tells us that: “[words] have become a shabby shroud of armour, no longer capable of sustaining him against the hopelessness that has trailed him all these years”.
Should we be indifferent to the fact that author questions the value of his work? Absolutely not. There are tons of authors who go through this struggle daily. What really worries me is that it looks like MacKenna lost his belief in literature.
Michel Foucault in his essay “What Is an Author?” quotes Beckett’s answer to this question: “What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking?”
It doesn’t matter, of course. What matters is if the author believes in what he is doing. Those who like old-fashion terms call this honesty.
The subject MacKenna has selected is challenging: the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, the power of his words. Whether MacKenna is able to shed new light on an old story should decide the quality of this book.
When we think about his writing craft, we see a talented writer. But ultimately, we don’t find out anything new about Captain, that we didn’t know before. He doesn’t have a human face, like the one Saramago gave him, nor is he tragic, like he was in Life of Brian.
Jesus is primarily an idea for us, whether we believe in a deity or not. But, according to MacKenna, ideas don’t influence the dull matter of our lives. Or they do, but only as long as there is somebody who will make us believe in their power. And after that person is gone, we have only our miserable lives to live again.
Once We Sang Like Other Men by John MacKenna (Dublin: New Island, 2017)