BEF 2011/22 – Trespasses [Ireland:Irish]

03/06/2011

Clara’s day begins poorly: leaving it to the last minute, she misses the garbage truck, and knows that the garbage will rot while she holidays overseas for a few weeks.  That’s what Clara does: careless and disorganized, she leaves everything until it is almost too late to do it.  It is no surprise, then, that she has to spend her last two days driving around the streets of her home in south Dublin completing her preparations before she leaves to visit her son in San Francisco.  What is a surprise however, given her passive temperament, is that by the end of the day she will have cut an old woman’s throat and left her to bleed to death.

A surprise but also, because of Irish author Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s careful foreshadowing, almost inevitable (Clara is described as “neat as a knife”).  The sense of something bad about to happen mounts steadily throughout the piece until the shocking explosion of violence near its end.  Clara’s excitement at her immanent trip, repeatedly mentioned, sets her up for a fall; her accountant’s absence due to a sudden heart attack that came “without warning”.  But the most inauspicious and ominous hint comes when she meets the old woman.  Having met with her accountant’s wife (in typical fashion Clara has only a few days left to lodge her tax return) she returns to her car, charmed by the sight of the woman across the road raking leaves.

Light mounds of golden foliage are lined up along the sides of her drive, like a range of tidy little mountains.  It is a pleasant sight…Clara smiles at the woman as she is about to say, “Isn’t it a lovely day?”

The woman looks up from her sweeping.

Venomous.

That’s the only word to describe the expression on her face.

The old woman is furious because Clara has broken the law.  It doesn’t matter that Clara’s crime was to park too close to the entrance of the woman’s driveway, nor that she apologizes.  For the old woman it is a crime that must not go unpunished.  Clara, suspicious of the woman’s sanity, suppresses her anger and drives away.  But the street is a dead end and to exit it she must drive past the old woman’s house again.

This time a group has gathered.  An old man approaches her after motioning her to stop.  She does so under the influence of “some dark spell”.  She looks at the faces of the people gathered, the old lady and the old man, and a younger woman with a pram.

There’s something unreal about the group.  It looks choreographed, like a scene from an opera or a ballet.

The two old people glare at her.  The house and driveway are like a backdrop on a stage.  The faces are like masks, not like real faces, which change expression in response to what people say.

The old man returns to the house to fetch pen and paper to take down her vehicle registration.

The young woman moves away and pushes her pram down the road, her head bent towards the contents of the pram.  The old woman picks up her rake and begins to work at the leaves.  The scene is beginning to lose momentum; everyone senses it’s time to draw the curtain.

Clara drives away, but she is not finished with the elderly couple.  She means to write them a scathing letter telling them just what she thinks, starting with their angry, ugly faces.  But she tears it up.  She writes another and tears that one up too.  In the end she returns to the house with a cake and a thank you note, seeking to shame them for their behaviour.  When she gets there, despite the car in the driveway and the light on at the far end of the house, unaccountably she breaks in, not knocking on the door, but instead finding the key in a flower pot and letting herself inside.

The old woman enters the hall from a room at the back of the house, and seeing Clara standing there doesn’t shout.  Clara, shy, offers the fruitcake, moving closer.  But rather than asking her to leave, or screaming, or doing anything else one might expect of a person faced by an intruder in their home, the old woman instead reaches into her apron pocket and pulls out a knife, lunges and stabs Clara in the chest.  Clara’s reaction is even more puzzling.  She is unhurt, her tough leather jacket has easily stopped the woman’s clumsy weak attack.  Now, instead of turning and running away, the knife is suddenly in Clara’s hand and with it she “slices through the bulging blue veins as smoothly as [through] the white flesh of a boiled potato.”  The incident is related in cold, dispassionate prose; from the moment she trespasses in the woman’s house, to her killing the woman and her thoughts the following morning, Clara seems curiously devoid of emotion, an automaton acting out a rehearsal, rather than a person reacting believably to a difficult situation.  Though, as will soon be shown, this only makes the whole scene easier to swallow.

It is the morning after the confrontation that Clara displays the most peculiar behaviour.  She wakes and makes some coffee, washes up, and thinks about the weather, looks at her garden.  The fallen, swirling leaves mind her of the old couple.

It’s then that she sees the old woman, in her mind’s eye, raking the leaves off her driveway, making those neat hillocks of golden light along the edges, and her husband helping her.  She sees them there, moving together rhythmically, old people clearly accustomed to working together, raking leaves or washing dishes, hanging clothes on the line.  They look like characters in a soothing, pastoral painting, with a title such as “The Reapers” or “The Gleaners”.

Nothing of the old woman’s potato-flesh or the “puddle the color of a cheerful red flower”.  In her mind Clara retains a distance from the killing, the same distance that was there before she trespassed, when she saw the couple as possessing the cold, empty, static faces of masked actors on a stage, the same distance that made of the knife a vegetable peeler.  Only now her thoughts of them are suffused with a pastoral romanticism, with the anonymity of the timeless and placeless.

For all of its unbelievability, the denouement of the story works.  It shouldn’t, but there are several reasons that it does.  First, there is the surreal, impersonal tone of the scene that sets it apart from the rest of the story.  There is very little said between Clara and the old woman, and what is said is not contained within quotation marks, it falls outside the bounds of the narrative, almost as though it was being dreamed, that it never actually happened (which is one way to read the scene).  Second, there are the several ways that Dhuibhne primes us for the scene, the gentle menace of her hints of catastrophe peppered through the text.  In the car after her initial confrontation Clara hears a news report of a court case about trespassing that resulted in the death of the trespasser.  The victim had followed his cow into another man’s field, trying to get it to follow him back home.  “The men were forty years old and this happened in 2008, although it sounded like the plot of a play you couldn’t put on because it is so dated and old fashioned.”  This echoes her thoughts of the old couple as looking like masked actors on a stage and, as it immediately precedes the climactic violence, carefully suggests the possibility of a suspension of realism to what follows.  Third, and most convincing of all, is that Clara herself seems to implicitly reject that the confrontation actually occurred.  I don’t mean to say that the reader should be convinced that killing never happened, only that a strange and unexpected reaction (in this case none at all) facilitates a strange and unexpected occurrence.  To have Clara wake up and fall at once into panic and guilt would have been a way to start a story, not end it.

As the pluralistic title suggests, Dhuibhne deals not with one trespass, but two.  The first and most obvious I have addressed above, but the other, while subtler, is not less notable.  The conflict between Clara and the old woman is the clash of new values meeting old, of insouciant irreligion meeting a piety that appears “dated and old fashioned” in its parochial reverence for the Law.

‘Trespasses’ is a story that could very easily have gone wrong, but that it doesn’t seems almost a fortunate accident.  What could be read as a scene from another story is thrust into the piece – trespasses, even- and the work, in danger of collapsing, manages a parting levity and the suggestion of a further, ecological trespass.

[The old couple] look like a couple working together making hay, or footing turf, or gathering seaweed on a golden morning in a blessed landscape in the west of the country, miles and miles and miles from this cold suburb, which looks as if all its roads and houses fell out of the sky and just happened to land on these unremarkable fields, miles from anywhere that makes sense.  Miles from the city and miles from the mountains and miles from the river.  Miles and miles from the silver sea.

‘Trespasses’ is translated from Irish by the author.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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