Revolutionary Literature {One}

Want to read a shorty-story so powerful it will ring in your ears for days like tinnitus from a gun shot? Frank O'Connor's “Guests of the Nation” will pull the trigger. This is a raw human story of inhumanity in a time of fierce fighting between the IRA and British Empire. For all it's brilliant characterization, the story is a familiar conundrum in rebellion politics: is it our duty to kill unarmed hostages in retaliation? Does the right-cause justify the inhumanity of the means? How far is too far? What is its effect on the loyal executioners? It's a 15 minute read, and you'll find the answers ingeniously folded in O'Connor's humorous and crisp narrative. “Guests of the Nation” is a charged story about the harsh reality of revolution, and it should be set in the hands of anyone considering the path of armed-revolution. O'Connors himself was active in the IRA and wrote this story in 1931, two years after a tour of violence. While the events may be fictitious, the emotions that accompany it are not, and one gets the sense that these events are related first-hand.

Of particular importance to note is how much character O'Connor reveals in such a limited space. The perspective of the rebel Bonaparte is vital, he is young, reasonable, still innocent. Bonaparte and Noble are set to look after two captured British soldiers, Hawkins and Belcher in the Irish countryside. A small old woman looks after the place, and they idly pass the time here for a few weeks. The guards play cards with the prisoners, congenially living beside them, “I could not at the time see the point of myself and Noble guarding Belcher and Hawkins at all.” Bonaparte observes the relations that unfold with quintessential detail, giving the story a grounding in the mundane.

It was a treat to see how Belcher got off with the old woman in the house where we were staying. She was a great warrant to scold, and cranky even with us, but before ever she had a chance of giving our guests, as I may call them, a lick of her tongue, Belcher had made her his friend for life. She was breaking sticks, and Belcher, who had not been more than ten minutes in the house, jumped up and went over to her. “Allow me, madam,” he said, smiling his queer little smile. “Please allow me,” and he took the hatchet from her. She was too surprised to speak, and after that, Belcher would be at her heels, carrying a bucket, a basket or a load of turf.

Over the nightly card table politics and religion are discussed. Hawkins is a talkative type, while Belcher plays it cool and reserved. Hawkins believes the origin of all conflict is capitalism and is quick to relate anything to it, “You believe all that silly old fairytale about Eve and Eden and the apple. Well listen to me, chum! If you're entitled to a silly belief like that, I'm entitled to my own silly belief – which is that the first thing your God created was a bleeding capitalist, with morality and Rolls-Royce complete. Am I right, chum?”

Of course the discourse is humorous but it takes a dark turn. The story doesn't linger in the mundane for long when Donovan tells Bonaparte the possibility of the prisoners' imminent execution. The shock of reality really hits Bonaparte and the reader experiences the intense ethical quandary present. We become witnesses to the story's fatal secret, privy to the eyes that know what's coming, watching the prisoners play out their last day unaware, and as a result magnified in their humanity. The reader is as effected by the secret as our empathic narrator, things are tainted, and the mundane takes on new meaning. Hawkins argues with his Irish guard noble about the afterlife, wherein his comical rants gain a dimension of morbid irony:

“Do you know what, chum?” he was saying with a saucy smile.” I think you're just as big a bleeding unbeliever as I am. You say you believe in the next world, and you know just as much about the next world as I do, which is sweet damn-all. What's heaven? You don't know. Where's heaven? You don't know. You know sweet damn-all ! I ask you again, do they wear wings? “

“Very well, then,” said Noble. “They do. Is that enough for you? They do wear wings.”

“Where do they get them then? Who makes them? Have they a factory for wings? Have they a sort of store where you hand in, your chit and take your bleeding wings? “

The day of reckoning comes quickly and Jeremiah comes to collect on the threat, “I want those two soldier friends of yours,” he said, getting red. “Is that the way, Jeremiah Donovan?” I asked.

“That's the way. There were four of our lads shot this morning, one of them a boy of sixteen.”

That's bad,” I said.

Yes, that's a grave reality and the rest of the story hits pretty hard. You're going to see Belchers and Hawkins marched out to a bog, and you are going to witness them executed in the coldest of ways. Hawkins attempts to level with Donovan, tries to negotiate to no avail, making one last stab at the capitalists, “Shut up, Donovan! You don't understand me, but these lads do. They're not the sort to make a pal and kill a pal. They're not the tools of any capitalist.” – The eerie point is that Hawkins, for all his nonsense talk, is actually right this time. He declares himself a deserter, is all-too-human in his approach, which raises the risk that executing him is now tantamount to killing a civilian, a pal. Hawkins is also revealing the fallacy in soldier's duty, by carrying out a vicious order one is the “tool of any capitalist.” His ideology doesn't save him, it's a brutal mess. Says Belcher, “I never could make out what duty was myself.” Alas, this is revolution, blah, blah, death, there must be casualties, right, but when will we learn?

I don't wish to further paraphrase something you must choose to experience for yourself, but I'd like to state how O'Connor's minimalistic prose treats this sequence delicately, elegantly yet coldly violent. All senses heighten, this is dark, brutal, scary, and it happens right before our eyes!

Donovan is unapologetically 'seasoned' in the ways of revolution and he leaves the scene. But the executions signify the fall from grace for the young rebels Bonaparte and Noble, who are immediately stricken by horror. They make their way back to the country house, to the old woman. She knows what they've done, and she too is deeply grieved. She falls to her knees and prays in the doorway. “Noble says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it…” The FEAR has taken hold, so Bonaparte and Noble are strung out, but what's especially relevant is the way in which Bonaparte measures the experience with space,

“…but with me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away, and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow.”

Let that image sink down into your bones, dear reader. You can't escape the gravity of this story. There is no option to unsee or to unfeel what you've just read and wept for. Has it affected you, 'like a distaster?' Will you be okay? I admit, when I read this story, it shook me unexpectedly and I could have used a hug after. There's a lot of layers to dig through in the story, many aspects to analyze. It's certainly a powerful humanist testament about the ruthlessness character of all armed conflict. The story ends, appropriately, with the line, “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

Jump the link to read “Guests of the Nation” in its entirety.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s