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Exorcising the ghosts of the past - talking forms part of the solution

As One City One Book author David Park, whose novels include The Truth Commissioner, takes part in a round-table discussion with real-life Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone at the Belfast Telegraph tomorrow, Brian Rowan says talking forms part of the solution.

Even in fiction, there is little imagined about the past of this place that some call Ulster, the province, Northern Ireland, the Six Counties, or the north.

What happened really happened. You can change names, dates and places, but the stories, even if told on the pages of a novel, chime with reality.

Yes, we now have this heralded 'peace' that is held up to others as an example, but we still live in divided communities: in some places, separated by walls and where words and descriptions come to identify or mark us out.

And the blood and the bodies and the brokenness of the conflict years are still with us and within us in the present, very much a part of the here and now.

Twenty years after ceasefires, much more than a decade after the Good Friday Agreement, there has been no thaw in which the killing acts have vanished, or disappeared.

The past is today's battlefield, contested, clashing, controversial and all part of complex and competing narratives. There is no one 'truth', no one story, or book, and there never will be.

We know that, in the hidden corners of that past and present, there are many ghosts. And, six years ago, in his highly acclaimed novel The Truth Commissioner, author David Park took us into those still haunted and haunting places of secrets and fears.

"I found it emotionally draining to write," he told me. "It punched a hole in me, but at the same time, there was something cathartic as well.

"It's a book about what it is to be human, politics is secondary."

The novel won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize – an award that recognises work which promotes peace and reconciliation.

Park is of this place, writes with the authority of that closeness to events, and knows that truth doesn't exist in pure light; that it can be "murky and dark".

And, in that truth commission he created and structured inside his book those several years ago, he wrote: "Day after day, it's as if the dam is breached and out pours a torrent of rising levels of hurt that have been stored over long winters of grief."

Tomorrow evening, as part of the One City One Book 2014 series of events, the creator of that fictional commission will engage with an audience that will include the real life Victims' Commissioner, Kathryn Stone.

"You absolutely can't run away from the past. It catches up with you," she says. "It's impossible to move on, when you've no legs, or an empty space in the bed where your husband used to be."

The commissioner has been in those meetings and homes and conversations when that anger, emotion and hurt identified by Park has spilled out – when the dam has been breached.

So, it happens both in the page-turns of his novel and in the day-to-day reality of the Victims Commissioner's engagement with those who have been hurt and traumatised and bereaved.

"There is a wound there that has not been healed," David Park tells me. "So, that wound needs to be salved."

Both Park and Stone understand that you cannot outlive the past, that you can't wait for it to go away in the natural cycles of life. They know that what happened won't die with the conflict generation, that others will remember. So, something needs to happen.

And Park's book – and his reading from it at the event tomorrow evening to be hosted in the offices of this newspaper – will open up and open out yet another conversation.

Alan McBride, whose wife and father-in-law were killed in the IRA Shankill bomb, will be in the audience. So, too, will Jude Whyte, whose mother and a police officer were killed by a UVF bomb on another Belfast street in 1984.

Their names, along with thousands of others, are found on the pages of Lost Lives, that log of deaths stretching over decades from the 1960s through to now.

It, too, is only part of the story. There are thousands more who have been hurt physically and psychologically.

"So many of the people I have met here have very real needs as a consequence of trauma," Ms Stone says. "And that trauma can be from what they have experienced themselves through bereavement, injury, or what they have witnessed, or what has happened to someone close to them."

Those stories of sleeplessness, self-harming, anxiety and dependence on prescription medication, or alcohol, are often buried under the conflict headlines of the high body counts in those shootings and bombings that are on the tips of our tongues.

But, the commissioner reminds us: "All of those things are the very real consequences of what happened to people."

And David Park understands how all of that cries out for practical help as one of the challenges of addressing the past.

"Don't ask me what that looks like," he adds, accepting this is for others with that expertise. But the past has many layers.

"We cannot have a process that's built on reconciliation unless we have a reconciled political leadership," he tells me. And, in that comment, Park is identifying and describing an unfinished and incomplete peace.

"In any post-conflict society, the legacy of the past is the last issue that comes to be resolved," he adds.

Here, in Northern Ireland, that challenge to find the right process, the right design and architecture, remains a work in progress. This is about seeing what can be salvaged from the Haass/O'Sullivan talks.

Looking at what might work in that collection of ideas and recommendations stretching across information or truth recovery, an examination of conflict themes and patterns, investigation, acknowledgement and an archive for all stories.

The US team of Haass and O'Sullivan borrowed from the report of Eames-Bradley, and Kathryn Stone recently borrowed from both in a set of proposals designed to make something happen.

She leaves the post of Victims Commissioner in just a couple of weeks' time, but wants to see a victim's pension introduced, a beginning to the information retrieval process and acknowledgement that includes official letters of apology. All of that has now been poured into the political mix.

But, whatever happens, 'truth' will not emerge as some magic wand, or fix. It didn't in Park's novel. Nor will it in reality.

Eames-Bradley in their report, now more than five years old, suggested a Legacy Commission. Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan used different titles which had the same meaning and purpose, an Historical Investigations Unit and that Independent Commission for Information Retrieval.

But, whatever is decided and whenever it is decided, we will see that tug-of-war between those who, in Park's novel, will try to preserve their truth while wanting everyone else's.

This is all part of the battlefield, the win and lose; part of a process that could hurt as much as it heals. There will be no absolute truth, not from any side, never mind all the sides.

And Park captured those potential limitations and flaws in his book six years ago; that truth is not everything but rather can come in some "formulaic, pre-learned response that expresses a vague regret for the pain caused".

In the pages of The Truth Commissioner, he explained what this meant for the bereaved families: "Often at the end they have to be helped from the chamber as if they haven't grasped that it's all over, that their time has finished, and then they shuffle towards the exits, their confused, white-salted faces glancing back over their shoulders."

These are the moments when the families understand, "that this is all they are to be given and they realise it's not enough".

In those words of fiction, there is both a reality and a warning: that the past cannot be fixed in some process of questions and answers.

Speaking into today's reality, Park tells me: "A lot of people are talking about truth and justice. Truth and justice is different from truth and reconciliation."

The Queen's law professor Kieran McEvoy, who has travelled the world looking at processes for addressing the past, will also attend tomorrow's One City One Book 2014 event.

He has just returned from Israel and Palestine as part of research also looking at Cambodia, Chile, Tunisia and South Africa, but he spoke to me of his learning from Park's writing: "I have been working on an academic book for a number of years on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. And, when I read The Truth Commissioner, I thought: why bother?

"Park captured in fiction much more eloquently the difficulties associated with truth recovery – much better than the thousands of academic texts I've read."

And on that specific point made by Park on the difference between truth and justice and truth and reconciliation, McEvoy says: "If you equate justice with jail time the reality is that for a lot of unsolved murders justice will not be achieved."

This is another reality of any exploration, examination or excavation of the past. That justice, in many cases (indeed, in most cases), will not mean court and jail.

For, many there will be a sense of betrayal, of let-down and the reality of more hurt. Whether addressed in fiction, or in academic studies, the past is not simple, not easily answered. It's broken and much of it cannot and will not be fixed.

This has to be part of the truth – that understanding of what a process, however shaped, cannot deliver. And Park captured all of that in The Truth Commissioner; how the stories weave through many different lives and sides; the fears about the past, how secrets might be exposed, the plots to keep them hidden.

His book finishes with a fire, but also with the thought that you can't destroy memory and knowledge.

"The fire makes no difference in one sense – all the files have been scanned and their contents now sleep in the hard drives of computers, out there in cyberspace beyond the reach of destruction."

"A part of me as a writer was gone with that fire," the author tells me.

He means that, in the emotionally draining experience of this writing project, he, too, was letting something go in the smoke and the flames of his novel.

But Park knows, as Kathryn Stone knows, there is no such thing as drawing a line. Somehow, some way, something has to be tried to at least salve some of the wounds.

Talking is part of that, being heard is part of that. The conversation will resume tomorrow evening.

What the critics said...

“Northern Ireland has been represented countless times in fiction, whether in novelistic or filmic form; and in Northern Ireland we are great sticklers for authenticity. We can spot a dodgy Belfast accent or location shot a mile off. David Park’s account reads true. The real Victims’ Commissioners have their job cut out. They could do worse than to read The Truth Commissioner, though the reading might not be too comfortable.”

Ciaran Carson, The Independent

“It is not a novel about politics at all. Its preoccupation is the private, the battleground of the self, and it approaches the mysterious with a kind of unsparing simplicity that yields moments of heart-shivering beauty. Atonement, if achievable, is hard-won indeed and few are exculpated at the close.”

Joseph O’Connor, The Guardian

“The central attribute of the writing — and it’s one of the things that make this novel of Ireland of more than parochial interest — is its conscientiousness. We’re reminded that with writers like David Park, the novel can itself be a kind of truth commission.”

Joseph O’Neill, New York Times

“The Truth Commissioner is a fine, crafted novel, but it is also an important book... his best writing to date... He sets out to examine what it means to be alive — and does so in fictions that are subtle, understated, not without a hint of menace and always courageous.”

Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

“'The importance of this magnificent book is the beauty of its writing, the mastery of its telling. David Park is a great writer, that's the truth.”

Glenn Patterson, Belfast author

Meet David ... and win his new book

  • The Belfast Telegraph is offering 60 lucky readers the chance to win a signed copy of this year's choice for One City One Book 2014, The Poets' Wives by Co Down author David Park
  • And One City One Book – the annual month-long celebration of local writing – continues with two more exciting events in Belfast this week
  • David Park, whose previous books include The Truth Commissioner, will be taking part in a round-table discussion entitled Ghosts Of The Past tomorrow, which will include personal perspectives from the Troubles on the subject of victimhood
  • Other panelists will include Victims' Commissioner Kathryn Stone, Kate Turner, director of Healing Through Remembering, Alan McBride, whose wife, Sharon, and father-in-law, Desmond Frizzell, died in the 1993 Shankill bombing and Jude Whyte, whose mother, Peggy, was killed by a UVF bomb in 1984
  • The event, which is chaired by the journalist and broadcaster Brian Rowan, is being held at the Belfast Telegraph's offices in Royal Avenue (side entrance) at 6.30pm and admission is free. Then, on Thursday, Belfast Central Library is the venue for a celebration of the contribution made to the life of the city by Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866), the radical, anti-slavery campaigner and social reformer (6pm)
  • It will feature the ballads of Jane Cassidy and Maurice Leyden and new poetry by Ruth Carr and admission is free
  • You can keep posted about events by visiting the Arts Council website – www.artscouncil-ni.org
  • For your chance to win a signed copy of The Poets' Wives, just email your name, address and contact number to competitions@ belfasttelegraph.co.uk by this Saturday, May 31

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