Return to Killybegs

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the book is the importance and artifice of myths and legends. In this sense, the novel’s plot, loosely based on the infamous case of IRA leader turned informer Dennis Donaldson, serves to do more than artfully convey the manner in which a zealot becomes a traitor; the book details the manner in which we construct ourselves and the ease in which such façades are eroded.

I won’t go into the (pardon the euphemism) complicated history of Northern Ireland, but a quick study will inform the neophyte reader about Sinn Féin and the Troubles, giving them proper (though not necessary) background to enjoy Chalandon’s book. But no reader should consider Return to Killybegs a thorough study of the conflict in Northern Ireland, though in a sense this may be the ideal book to see beyond the history. Often such novels are marketed as windows into a world most readers would fear to actually visit, and we can thank Chalandon for his time as a reporter in Belfast, time that lent the novel proper verisimilitude. While in Belfast, Chalandon befriended Dennis Donaldson, and this relationship has spawned a novel that compresses nearly a century of Irish history into a few hundred quick-moving pages. This accomplishment might be possible in a strict biography, though the result would inevitably swing toward objective distillation of events. But in the fictional account of Tyrone Meehan, the protagonist of Return to Killybegs, the reader is offered a more probing view of the much-maligned traitor. One wonders if the real-life Donaldson is as sympathetic a character as Meehan. And sympathetic he is, allowing the reader to shelve the conflict that often arises when reading history: how do we pity a loathed historical figure?

While this is fiction, and must be regarded as such, a factual account might offer problems that a piece of imagination can assail. I tend to doubt memoirs and biographies and have an easier time buying into stories that I know are largely invented. Relieved of the chore of deciphering between the real and imagined, I can better digest the ideas that stand behind the events. And Return to Killybegs is a book that offers ideas, conflicts, and questions, almost daring the reader to despise its hero while doing a damn perfect job of making us understand him. We know what will happen to Meehan; there is no surprise in his end, only suspense along the way. There is plot, but the story—from rural Donegal to segregated Belfast, the early indoctrination process of Sinn Féin to some of the most nauseating prison stories ever written—serves to convey an important statement on human fallibility.

A word regarding the translation: I read a lot of literature from Ireland and am especially interested in the history of the Troubles. That said, I am hardly an expert on the subject, just an avid reader and lover of all things Irish. While I cannot speak to Chalandon’s original text, the translation by Ursula Meany Scott reads as though it comes from the mouth of an Irishman. Translation being an imperfect art, surely there were challenges in bringing this from French to English, though Chalandon’s time among the Irish surely helped. Nevertheless, I often forgot I was reading a French novel as the story, slang, and syntax were not unlike what one might find in a Roddy Doyle or Patrick McCabe novel. And the prose moves fluidly, beautifully at times; even a prison rebellion saturated with excrement becomes an artfully narrated saga of defiance and will.

In the afterword to Return to Killybegs, Ed Moloney writes: “French journalist Sorj Chalandon has gone where too many Irish writers fear to tread.” For all the authenticity of the novel, it does appear that only an outsider could adequately address the inner workings of the informer. But Chalandon confronts the mechanics of betrayal, the ways in which we justify our worst actions and the illusions we collectively assemble, offering his character some much-deserved empathy. Few books are able to achieve as much.

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