Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Vignettes of the new Ireland: The Deportees, by Roddy Doyle

In the late 1990s, immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa started pouring into Ireland, attracted by the seemingly endless opportunities opened up by the country's economic growth. As one can imagine, a sudden and large scale wave of immigration changed the social structure of the country in ways not entirely predictable. As the Nigerians came to take more and more of the jobs that others were unwilling to do, white Irishmen who had never seen a black man before suddenly found themselves face to face with their own inhibitions, prejudices and fears. The Deportees is a collection of short stories born out of this churn.

Roddy Doyle informs us that the stories were originally published in Metro Aireann, a multi-cultural magazine published out of Dublin. They were written in serialized form - short 800 word chapters released one every month. Doyle claims he enjoyed writing in this form, though sometimes - 'Characters disappear, because I forgot about them. Questions are asked, but sometimes, not quite answered. The stories have never been carefully planned.' And in my mind, that is the undoing of the book.

There are some moments here, to be clear. The father preparing himself mentally before meeting his daughter's black boyfriend - that's a moment. The black kid in school, standing with his white tormentors, awaiting the teachers punishment, suddenly, unexpectedly laughing out - that's a moment. But these I found relatively few. For the most part, the book read exactly like what it is - a series of short, somewhat interesting pieces strung together till the writer runs out of interest and ends the story.

Doyle offers a great window into the Irish mind, mostly through the language his characters speak. There is a generous dose of people saying 'grand!' and 'fuck that'. But then, I don't know whether that is enough to make the tales believable. In the story Home to Harlem, an African American professor in Harlem reacts to the central character's speech by saying 'The Irish and their famous profanity - charming'. To which he asks her whether she got her position on a sports scholarship. 'Well, you were indulging in a bit of the 'oul stereotyping there. The Irish and the profanity, like. So, I kind of thought, you being black and that, you must have got in here on a sporting scholarship. So, was it basketball or the sprinting?' A mini-moment, right there.

The Deportees is a light-hearted little book taking on a large-hearted theme. It gets into the skin of its characters and speaks in a voice not often heard. But in the ultimate analysis, I am just not sure it says very much.

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