viernes, 18 de diciembre de 2009

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

In The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry tells a story set in Ireland. As is often the case, this story set in Ireland is very much a story of Ireland, as much describing a nation and a setting as a personal history. But it seems that at least one aspect of the country’s painful relationship with its competing churches has changed in Sacred Scriptures. Gone is the assumption of grace applied unthinkingly by Catholics to their side of the divide. And reason for its removal is the church’s attitude towards women, marriage and motherhood. In Secret Scriptures these axes of divide intersect to create a story that is effectively a modern virgin birth. It thus creates and presents a Madonna who, in her own way, must be kept above and apart from other women, other people.

Late in the book Dr Grene, whose journal forms a large part of the narrative, asks this question: “Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?” Recollection thus remains sincere, but its waywardness perhaps lies in its selectivity, its particularity. History, after all, is an interpretation of events, not merely a listing, and interpretation always has a point of view. When, however, one’s knowledge of the past is at best patchy and at worst inaccurate, it becomes a new world to be discovered, revealed perhaps by chance, perhaps by design. Dr Grene also writes, “The one thing that is fatal in the reading of an impromptu history is wrongful desire for accuracy.” In the end, it is Dr Grene’s pursuit of such an impromptu history that reveals a stunning truth, a truth that can only be uncovered precisely because of the accuracy, the diligence that others invested in one person’s history.

The impromptu history that Dr Grene reads is that of Secret Scripture’s central character, Roseanne McNulty, née Clear. She is a hundred years old and has, for most of her adult life, been confined within the walls of a mental hospital. Her place of repose is to close and be demolished. Dr Grene is to oversee its demise. Roseanne has decided to write her life story.

If Te Secret Scripture has a weakness, then it has a double weakness. Overall, the plot might come too close to the sentimental for some readers. For others, it will be the book’s saving grace. Secondly, Roseanne Clear, frail at a hundred years of age, might be an unlikely figure to write such a succinct, coherent and vivid account of events that happened almost eighty years before. Again we must suspend some belief here, but that is easily done because her recollections are both engaging and credible. They would have been more so if, as impromptu history, they were less concerned with improbable detail. It’s not the events that might be questionable, merely the accuracy of their recollection. But after all, that detail might just be illusory.

There was a history in the family, we are told, a history of illness and instability and, perhaps, a history of another, less mentionable, affliction of women. But in the end none of these are rare. It’s their public acknowledgement or admission that’s unusual.

Life and its institutions treat Roseanne Clear badly, but no differently from others identified as afflicted with her condition. She is effectively branded insane by a socially-constructed righteousness that now seems to have lost all of its previously unquestioned authority. She seems to have few regrets, however, except, of course, for a life that may not have been lived. The life in question did, in fact, live, and it became something that reinterpreted Roseanne’s entire existence.

Sacred Scripture is a beautiful book. It has its flaws, but the immediacy of its subject and the poignancy of its dénouement make it both enthralling and surprising.

View the book on amazon
The Secret Scripture

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