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The Banyan Tree

By Christopher Nolan
Published by Phoenix House

In 1981 the literary world was stunned by the publication of a book of poems, Dam-Burst of Dreams, by a fifteen year old Dublin boy, Christopher Nolan. The subsequent arrival of his autobiography, Under the Eye of the Clock, six years later, confirmed his reputation as one of the most strikingly original and innovative stylists in contemporary letters. Unfortunately, as well as focusing on his relative youth, too much of the brouhaha which surrounded the appearance of these books centred on the fact that Nolan is severely disabled by cerebral palsy, nearly dying at birth from asphyxiation, but surviving, imprisoned by his mute and paralysed body, to write with the aid of a unicorn-like typing stick attached to his head. I say ‘unfortunately’ because, regardless of whether or not he was disabled, Nolan would have been recognised and succeeded as a writer on talent alone, although it is of course apposite to speculate as to what extent his atypical use of language is the result of the extreme interiority imposed by his handicap.
Now we have, after twelve years in the making, Nolan’s triumphant return with this, his first novel. It tells the simple story of Minnie O’Brien, a woman whose life span parallels that of this century, until her death in her mid-eighties. She marries Peter in 1922, and they farm a small holding of five fields in Westmeath, near the tiny village of Drumhollow. They have three children: Brendan, who goes for the priesthood, and winds up a bishop in New York; Shelia, who trains as a nurse in London, before settling down to comfortable but unhappy affluence in the largely well-to-do Dublin suburb of Blackrock; and Frankie, the youngest, who wanders the world, doing a bit of this and a bit of that. Minnie loses her husband early, but endures through her long, lonely widowhood into old age, sustained by the hope that one day Frankie will reappear. When he finally does make his way back home, he is ten minutes too late to see his mother alive for the last time.




So, ostensibly, not much happens, but that is because the book is not so much driven by plot, as by its very language, and its primary concern is linguistic, not sociological. In an age when a sizeable proportion of novels published are little more than thinly disguised journalism, with even so-called ‘literary’ fictions falling into the category of throwaway page-turners, it is heartening to see a young writer taking such huge risks with the written word. Although it may not always quite come off, it is not difficult to see why Nolan’s work has prompted comparisons with that of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas. It is also a relief to read something that has obviously not been dashed off and churned out on a word processor. Every real writer knows the effort of concentration and force of will required to do good work. One can only marvel at the additional laboriousness of the process Nolan had to go through and overcome to achieve his vision. But there is also a sense in which the slowness imposed by this means of production may have actually improved the quality of his prose. This guy really pays attention, and he demands that we do, too.
Some unkind commentators, probably motivated by jealousy rather than pursuit of the truth, have gone so far as to claim that Nolan doesn’t write the stuff at all, but that his mother Bernadette, who holds his head while he propels himself against the typewriter keys, is really responsible. Such accusations should be treated with the contempt they deserve. Of course, no one wants to give Christopher Nolan a bad review, but nor does he need any special pleading. He has done what any writer worthy of the name, able-bodied or otherwise, should always be striving to do: he has made the language his own, by reinventing and extending it, and so altered our view of the world, by a supreme act of the imagination.

First published in The World of Hibernia













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