Well, he’s finally done it. Just four short years after successfully twisting into English what was until then believed to be the untranslatable modernist classic Cré na Cille, Alan Titley has gone and written a truly untranslatable book in the Irish language.
To even try would be an act of violence against both target and source language, and humour itself – a bold claim, perhaps, but bear with me.
Typically of its author, the book in question – the An Post Irish Book Awards-shortlisted Lámh, Lámh Eile is built on in-jokes, literary allusions, and puns on Irish language place names and orthography. Take, for instance, this brief description of the protagonist’s travels between Derry and Dublin:
“Tar éis an tsaoil b’éigean dom dul tríd an Srath Bán ar lár, agus Síón Milis Searbh agus ÓMaighgawd agus Seanchúdubh agus Scairbh fhileata na gCaorach agus Muineach an Áin agus Caisleán na Bléine bige agus Carraig mo Chara Ros agus an tÁdh a bhí ar Fheirdia.”
As well as recognisable, albeit slightly bastardised place names on the way between the two cities, the above passage contains an obscure literary reference, a bilingual pun, a dad joke, a dick joke and a Táin reference. To be able to do this within the confines of one language is impressive: to do it again in translation would require an impossible virtuosity.
This is textbook Titley. A retired professor of Irish and uncrowned pensionné terrible na Gaeilge, Titley has brought his unique, impish voice to countless genres, from children’s books to poetry to academic articles that are much too entertaining to deserve the title.
He shines when he is allowed to be clever and insulting, and this book is no exception: it has been suggested in the online newspaper Tuairisc that the book’s protagonist, a private investigator called Shamus, would be a worthy contender for the Peter Casey Diplomacy Award.
A literary mishmash that can be roughly defined as a wry take on noir, Lámh, Lámh Eile follows Shamus around Ireland as he tries to piece together the mystery of a missing Traveller man, once a boxer of great renown, after his wife approaches the detective with his severed right hook in a shoebox. Half whodunit, half spoof of the genre, it is an irreverent and sometimes chaotic story.
When Titley is funny, he’s very funny. At times, however, the shock-humour is so gratuitous it feels Gervaisian – and that is no compliment. The numerous jokes about the towns and counties of Ireland begin to feel less like amusing jibes and more like genuine barbs passed off as “banter”. The brief dalliance with an Irishified “Engrish” in one scene is cringeworthy.
This brings us to one of the central problems of the book: the main character is, unapologetically, a bollocks. While an outright anti-hero can work well in short stories, in a full-length novel one quickly loses patience with a protagonist who has nothing nice to say, and says it at length.
Much of the novel is spent travelling with Shamus across Ireland seeking clues, and at times the reader almost feels trolled by the lengthy, stream of consciousness monologues during which the plot seems to be suspended for more extended punning.
However, this is a good book: when it hits its stride, and particularly when it is animated by characters other than Shamus, Lámh, Lámh Eile manages to successfully fuse together comedy, noir, and literary fiction.
This is a risky mix that few would pull off, and it is perhaps significant that crime fiction seems to be the one example of genre writing that many of the language’s “literary” authors eventually try their hands at.
One of the dicier elements of the plot is that it centres, to a large extent, around the interactions of a settled, ex-law enforcement protagonist with members of the Travelling community. It is undeniable that certain tropes in Traveller representation feature throughout the book: clannish rivalries resolved in violence, hostility from local businesses, reluctance of the settled to call them “Travellers” instead of “Tinkers”.
None of these tropes are used to ridicule the community, however, and outsider though he definitely remains, Shamus recognises with concern their marginalisation and vulnerability to exploitation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a plot based on the retrieval of severed body parts, we encounter many seedy scenes of violence, ranging from police brutality to an ultra-violent pitched faction fight between two Traveller families in the book’s denouement.
The violence is, thankfully, well-handled and does not descend into pornography, though elsewhere the frailty of the body is very often the butt of the joke. Put simply, the novel is incredibly scatalogical throughout, a distinctly Gaelic feature of this generic mishmash.
Despite the predictability of a misanthropic PI and his burnt-out cop sidekick taking on Russian mobsters and trying to penetrate a closed Traveller community to solve the mystery, the book does have several moments of unexpected nuance and sincerity.
This is especially true towards the end, as when our hero is unexpectedly sensitive to being challenged by a Derry woman for what she sees as his collusive friendship with a member of the PSNI.
Gratifyingly, Shamus evolves into a more complex and likeable character in the last quarter of the book, a much-needed development. The other characters are for the most part well drawn and one crook is particularly interesting: known as An Taibhse (The Ghost), he is introduced to us in a stunningly creepy and utterly compelling scene set in his decrepit Big House, perhaps the highlight of the entire book.
Although trying at times, Lámh, Lámh Eile is an ambitious and imaginative novel by one of the language’s most idiosyncratic and accomplished authors.
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