Published 18/03/2012 | 08:00
Glenn Patterson loves this crazy town. In his no-fiction collection Lapsed Protestant, he wrote of Belfast: "I'm a stranger here myself,'' and then bursting into a rapturous declaration to a visiting German writer "I love this city."
Outside the John Hewitt bar, not perhaps such an uncommon occurrence.
With his latest novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, Patterson makes a brave attempt to do for his beloved Belfast what Joyce did for Dublin and Peter Ackroyd does for London, that is become its intimate biographer and historian. And surely no current writer is more suited to the task.
Born in Belfast in 1961, Glenn Patterson was brought up on a housing estate on one of the city's sectarian boundaries which was inevitably traumatised by the outbreak of the Troubles.
Educated at Methody, like a lot of his generation he escaped to an English university, in his case the University of East Anglia.
Back in Belfast, Glenn showed an early commitment to cutting edge literature, at one point obliged to read his poetry in the back of an RUC van.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, he turned to prose, and has produced a series of acclaimed novels including Fat Lad and The International where the city's recent past acts as a commentary on its troubled present.
The Mill for Grinding Old People Young is set in two periods of radical change, covering more or less the Victorian period in which Belfast moved towards rapid prosperity and the conflict that followed as a small, introverted city grew wings.
The first part opens with the ailing Gilbert Rice surveying his life on a late Victorian Christmas Eve but this is no Dickens-style pastiche. The Belfast of the 1890s is presented as a technologically advanced modern city. In fact, the book's opening sentence, 'The telephone rang this morning ...' skews expectations. So we have electric lights, recorded sound and, at the Reform Club, a slide show of HG Wells' The Time Machine which apes the beginnings of cinema.
It's a period of great anticipation. A city hall is imminent, sort of - "perhaps at the end of eight hundred thousand years we will at last have our new city hall". Great ships like the Oceanic roll off the slipway at Harland -amp; Wolff. And a sombre Rice begins to reflect on his boyhood in a smaller city still haunted by the echo of the United Irishmen's failed uprising.
As an orphan, he is placed in the care of his strict and distant grandfather, but soon begins to explore the city. An early encounter with a woman squatting outside a bar produces a strong erotic reaction like a more sordid echo of Stephen Dedalus's famous seaside epiphany in Portrait Of The Artist but also prefigures his eventual meeting with Polish exile Maria at the inn which provides the book's name. For what's a proper historical novel without a doomed romance?
Patterson makes the interplay between naive Gilbert and worldly Maria charming and convincing, all the while surrounding his young hero with angels and devils. Childhood friend, driven architect John Millar, appeals to his higher nature but his worldly colleagues at the docks drag him to the egg rolling at Cave Hill thereby instigating his meeting with destiny - and Maria - at the inn.
And all the while we are given a lesson in topography and history. You could probably draw a timeline of Rice's wanderings via the street names.
Half the fun of this novel is imagining the past through the prism of the present. Glenn Patterson knows as well as his old mucker Ciaran Carson the importance of exact map references, especially in a town where until recently a wrong turning could in certain circumstances be fatal. Crossing Belfast from Cave Hill at one end to the Giant's Ring at the other is an act of both reclamation and liberation. Our hero Gilbert becomes aware of the stultifying political stasis represented by the Unionist ascendancy in the figure of Lord Donegal.
As his final crisis with Maria develops to the point of breakdown, he conflates the reality of her political exile with an irrational desire to dramatically shatter the status quo. At this point the novel, which has so far been largely comic in tone, with even a nod to Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds in Gilbert's come-hither letter to potential target Lord Donegal, turns much darker.
Patterson acknowledges the parallels with the present day without pushing them too hard. The sectarianism, and the attitudes towards immigrants are noted, and there is of course that great historical continuum the Twelfth of July, which, as Gilbert rumly notes, "passed off mainly peacefully in Belfast". But we can only agree with Gilbert's grandfather, whose own past becomes the key to the novel's moving resolution, when he observes that "brinkmanship and amendment" seem to be the constant elements in Belfast's progress - a moral, if you like.
This gripping work shows Glenn Patterson mastering the fine art of the historical novel without descending into cliche, but perhaps what the book does most successfully is present the city as an organic presence in itself, able to absorb the lunatics, lords and lovers in its midst as it turns its own face outwards to meet the open sea.