Book reviews: Well-timed assessment of Sinn Féin journey
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin by Deaglán de Bréadún, published by Irish Academic Press
SINN Féin's journey over 30-odd years from "propaganda voice of the armed struggle" to a party on the threshold of power in the Republic, and therefore across Ireland, is without doubt fascinating political history. Deaglán de Bréadún has documented much of that journey, as a journalist with the Irish Times and latterly with the Irish Sun. He previously wrote The Far Side of Revenge: Making the Peace in Northern Ireland, which covered the period on either side of 1998's Good Friday Agreement.
It's the aforementioned near reach to power in the south which provides the context for the opening chapter of a book that's journalistic in style rather than academic. De Bréadún initially focuses on the Sinn Féin's post-bailout alliance with many anti-austerity campaigners and left-leaning independents, a relationship that has become more formalised through a vote transfer pact since the book went to print.
The party's tussle with Labour for the allegiance of the Republic's trade union movement is an interesting component in the political drama unfolding, as is the long-running battle with Fianna Fáil for the mantle of Irish republicanism's true standard bearers.
Thankfully, the author's tone is neither reverential or too critical, as he charts Sinn Féin's path to mainstream Irish politics and 14 seats in Dail Eireann, and how along the way it jettisoned policies like EU opposition and hiking the Republic's corporation tax rate. As the author notes: "principles tend to be diluted by pragmatism".
There are subsequent chapters dedicated to the rise of Mary-Lou McDonald, Martin McGuinness and a history of the party's on-off relationship with abstentionism. Latterly the book deals with the poor PR a long-standing association with a private army brings, such as last year's controversy surrounding Maíria Cahill and Gerry Adams's arrest – as the author notes, "in what the British Queen Elizabeth might term an annus horribilis".
Not quite thorough or truly insightful enough – or weighty enough – to be a figurative or literal bookend, De Bréadún's book is none the less well timed to coincide with what many hope will be a pivotal period for Sinn Féin as the party seeks to put greater distance between it and those who continue to use the name and influence of the IRA.
Irish News Political Correspondent
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien is published in hardback by Faber & Faber
NOW into her sixth decade of writing – and 10 years on from her last novel – Edna O'Brien brings us a story of loss and homecoming, loosely based on the story of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic.
Dr Vladimir, a stranger with an Eastern European accent and a monastic demeanour, arrives in the small town of Cloonoila, Ireland, and sets up a clinic for New Age healing and sexual therapy. He begins an affair with Fidelma McBride, who becomes pregnant, but when he is outed and arrested as the Butcher of Bosnia, she is forced to flee to London, where she finds herself as just one more refugee, another broken story amongst many.
As an exploration of what it means to fit and find a home, it holds much promise, but the narrative is so meandering, and the cast of characters so vast, that the story rarely manages more than a host of well-worn cliches.
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco, published in hardback by Harvill Secker
NUMERO Zero is a novel of two stories: the shooting of Mussolini and his mistress in 1945, and that of Colonna, a writer in 1992 Milan who accepts the task of ghost-writing a journalist's memoir.
The journalist in question – Braggadocio – is setting up a newspaper titled Domani (Tomorrow), financed by a magnate and not intended for actual publication. Instead, the financier's intention is to ruffle the feathers of the rich and powerful, in the hope they will bribe him to shut it down. A neat set-up, until Braggadocio uncovers a conspiracy involving Mussolini's death that turns out to be true...
Though it contains all the skilful twists and turns you'd expect from Eco, it's certainly not one for those coming to him for the first time, and the pay-off isn't sufficiently satisfying. Nonetheless, the exploration of the nature of the media makes it a novel for our times.
John Le Carre: The Biography by Adam Sisman, published in hardback by Bloomsbury
JOHN Le Carre – real name David Cornwall – has enjoyed a status rare among writers: the acknowledged master of a genre whose work is also considered real literature. Yet, as the years have passed, we seem to know less and less about him.
This absorbing new doorstopper promises to change all that. Much of the first half recounts the exploits of Cornwall's father Ronnie, a fraudster and womaniser; Cornwall's mother fled when Cornwall was just five.
Le Carre admits he was a spy nowadays – in MI5 and later MI6 – but remains reticent as to his activities.
After the success of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Cornwall morphs into Le Carre, and the latter half of the book is a succession of stories researched, novels reviewed, and contracts negotiated.
Though witnesses testify to Cornwall's charisma, it is hard to like him on this showing. The Le Carre persona has enabled us to project on to him the qualities we admire in his writing and characters. Inevitably, perhaps, Cornwall the man can only be diminished in the revealing of his flaws and errors.