Proinsias Mac a’ Bhaird. Coiscéim; pb; 210pp; €7.50;
Review by Cathal Póirtéir
Proinsias Mac a’ Bhaird’s latest offering is part thriller, part social satire. In alternating chapters we follow the story of a writer living on a Donegal island, a young Dublin Muslim searching for more meaning in life and a controversial book linking those two story threads. The book purports to describe the origins of Islam and we can guess from the title that we will see the writer under threat.
The story kicks off with Cormac Mac Ruairí, an Irish-language novelist, frustrated by the lack of attention given to his previous novels by reviewers and literary editors and, consequently, by the reading public. He decides that if only he could generate some controversy around his next book, it might finally attract the attention he feels he deserves. He hits on the idea of a controversial book on the origins of Islam where he questions the divine inspiration of the prophet and replaces it with a scheming uncle trying to unite warring factions by creating another monotheistic religion. Here and there between the two main storylines we are given excerpts from his book, Ridire an Fhásaigh, in which young Mohamad has visions caused by substance abuse while his uncle manipulates him into becoming the leader of a new religion.
The initial reaction to the publication is lukewarm until Ben, a young Dublin Muslim, spots one of the few reviews and decides it may be insulting to Mohamad and to Ben’s new-found interest in his religion. Ben, in common with television pundits who discuss the book, doesn’t have enough Irish to understand the book and turns for help to a faulty Google translation and manages to get an imam in his mother’s native Libya to declare a fatwa on the book and its author. The Irish Muslim leadership oppose the fatwa but Ben manages to link up with three other young believers who decide that they will carry it out and make plans to fire-bomb a bookshop stocking the offensive title and to head off for Donegal to attack or kill the author. Their arrival on the island is complicated by the first gay pride festival to be held there, organised by a trans friend of Mac Ruairí’s. Using the event as cover, they work out the details of their attack on the writer, which they will video and put on social media to prove they have carried out the fatwa.
That may or may not outline too much of the story but to go any further would spoil the climax of the book for prospective readers. The building tension through the unlikely chain of events in this thriller is central to the structure and pace of the story, but there are also other enjoyable elements that will be appreciated by readers. There is the jaundiced eye of the island author when it came to reactions to his work. On his Gaeltacht island very few, if any, of the locals have bothered to read his work, although they gave him great support on a personal basis; the national and local media reviews of the book in various newspapers and magazines ring true to what might be expected from the various sources and raise a smile or two.
When the young fanatics decide to set fire to the books in Eason’s, they find it is almost impossible to find the Irish-language books section, and when they do they can’t find the book they’re looking for. The islanders are amazed to learn that a book in Irish has attracted such attention. Unfortunately for the author, his plan to cause a wave of publicity has come true and he is not only surprised but uneasy.
There are lots of minor themes that add to the overall enjoyment without interfering with the flow of the main narrative—these include making the case for freedom of speech, acceptance of diversity in questions of religion, sexual identities and the use of Donegal Irish! The most boldly named character in Irish-language fiction must surely go to the relatively minor but extremely colourful and not unimportant role of Lady Taismochlais.
Like a lot of enjoyable thrillers, some of what happens in Fatwa is a bit outlandish and improbable, but forgivably so in a not-entirely-serious romp such as this. Many of the central characters, however, are not as credible or complex as they need to be to make the reader believe in them and care about them in a way that would have enhanced the plot tensions and the reading experience as a whole.
Cathal Póirtéir is a writer and broadcaster who has published several books and CDs on Irish folklore, social history and literature in Irish.