Friday, March 20, 2015

An Aran Keening, by Andrew McNellie

An Irish friend recommended this book to me, the memoir by a Welsh writer and editor Andrew McNellie of his yearlong stay in Inishmore, of the isles of Aran in the late 1960s.  I have yet to figure out the odd and not particularly pertinent title of the memoir--An Aran Keening (2001, Liliput Press).  There’s no real mourning in the book, no deep preoccupation with anything lost, even though the final pages make clear that loss and deep change have occurred.

As a young man the author wants to immerse himself in the Aran culture, to be isolated and cut off from his own life.  Romantic difficulties might be part of the reason.  So he goes to live on Inishmore.  He tells the people he rents a cottage from there that his wife was unable to come with him, when in fact he is not married at all.  I found it interesting and frustrating to read this book.  The author describes the landscape and the small town and most of all the people of the island where he lives.  But for the most part we never get anywhere.  The author’s self-absorption prevents him from engaging more with the islanders around him.  There’s always a sense of distance between the author and the islanders, and even though he says it is ultimately bridged and removed, we never feel that.  The author is immersed in the culture of Aran, and then after a year with little fanfare he abandons it and returns to the mainland and continues his life.  Is there no after-effect?  No point? No significance to it all?  In the epilogue, he returns to visit Inishmore after 30 years to find how things have changed, how the island has lost its isolation and become something of a tourist spot.

The memoir gives a glimpse, incomplete and scattered, of what life for centuries would have been like in the Aran islands—windswept, isolated, under the constant barrage of winter storms, tales of fishermen lost at sea, nights at the pub. The book is too short and superficial.  We’re tantalized but not satisfied when it’s over with the possibility of what a deeper account might provide.  In some ways the epilogue is the best part of the book.

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