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Blood-Dark Track

by Joseph O'Neill (Granta, 2001)

There can be few masters of English prose with backgrounds as complicated as Joseph O'Neill's. His very name makes no foreign suggestions; it even sounds as American as it Irish. In fact, the given name was taken from his Syrian-Turkish grandfather, a man whose antecedents slip into untraceability at some point in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. As for the O'Neill's of Cork, the writer doesn't know for certain where they lived at the time of the Great Famine.

The upward mobility of both sides of Mr O'Neill's family seems distinctly American. So does his "mongrel" lineage, which only forces the question: how did a nice Irish boy marry a nice Turkish girl in Europe, sans melting pot? And isn't there something American about the writer's father's career? Kevin O'Neill appears to be a project engineer, traveling the globe to oversee large-scale construction projects. The money and market for that sort of activity, at least after World War II, sprang from American roots. The writer and his siblings grew up all over the place, but mostly at The Hague. How many different streams of influence can be poured into one man without rendering him incoherent? The example that Mr O'Neill sets, anything but incoherent, doesn't tell us. There seems to be room for more: even when Blood-Dark Track, his reconstruction of his grandfathers' open and secret careers, was published, the dust jacket could read: "he lives with his family in New York and London." The dust jacket for his new, breakout book, Netherland, limits him to "New York City." It seems utterly rash to imagine that Mr O'Neill has "settled down."

Here's something extremely un-American about Mr O'Neill's grandfathers: they both spent most of World War II in internment camps, and in both cases their own governments were acting in gear with the British. Both men were political prisoners, parked in jail to keep them from aiding the enemy. In Ireland, the enemy was the IRA, an organization for which only Germany among the nations had the time of day in the early Forties, and Jim O'Neill was a troublemaking member. The internment of Joseph Dakak (or, as he later was, Dakad) in Palestine was a cloudier affair all round, but there appears to have been some legitimacy to Turkish fears that he might be an Axis informant. And yet the similarities between the two men's' respective situations tend to emphasize the considerable differences between them. What makes Blood-Dark Track so interesting in retrospect is the impossibility of resolving the comparisons and contrasts the accumulate as the pages turn. In many ways, the grandfathers are complementary figures. As the book draws to a close, we see that they stood in entirely opposite relation to the idea of the nation state. Jim O'Neill belonged to a tribe from which he did not dream of separating himself. Joseph Dakad was a cosmopolitan, a Syrian settled in Turkey who wanted above all to be seen as a man of the world. Jim O'Neill went to jail because he was, if anything, too Irish. Joseph Dakad, plainly, was not Turkish enough.

Blood-Dark Track is an apt title for a volume that, on two levels, does double duty as a travel book. Mr O'Neill sets out from the relative serenity of happy-family certainties, only dimly aware of secrets that have been passed down to the sympathetic and withheld from the merely curious. As he follows the track of these secrets back toward something like a comprehensive understanding, he also travels around Ireland and the Levant.

An element of the taut silences that enclosed Joseph and Jim — surrounded them almost completely, like seas around peninsulas — was that of condemnation. Normally, we may count on an afterlife as a mouthful of stories, but for Joseph and Jim it had not worked out that way. It could be said that there is nothing unusual or wrong about this. If we are lucky, we have better and more urgent things to do than indulge in the regressive business of dwelling on the dead — children to raise, homes to keep up, work problems to figure out, spouses to love. My parents, for example, have been this lucky. However, I had always felt, growing up, that there was more to their silence than distraction or coyness. Nor was it the case that my grandfathers' absence was due to my grandmothers' engulfing presences. No, the silence meant more than that. It meant, I sensed, that Joseph and Jim were each in some way in the wrong. Les absents ont toujours tort.

But I didn't know this for a fact. Actually, I knew just about nothing for a fact — nothing about these men, and very little about the historical circumstances of their lives.

Mr O'Neill is never merely curious, but as the tone of the foregoing suggests, his outlook is broad and sanguine. His goal, which becomes keener over time, cannot be called sympathetic, either. He does not seek admission to tribal councils. Although he never declares a personal resemblance to either grandparent, it emerges that, while he may owe a certain intensity to his Irish forebear, his outlook is appraising and somewhat distanced. How, given his polyglot childhood and youth, could it be otherwise. Here he is, driving away from a Sinn Féin Advice Centre in Derry, with his Uncle Brendan, also (like Jim O'Neill) an active member of the IRA.

When we left, Brendan was thrilled. "It feels great," he said, as we walked back to the car, "it's like a warm hug you're getting from the community." He looked at me with a grin. "It's a real buzz, isn't it? Don't you feel at home here, really at home?"

I smiled at Brendan. It was intoxicating to have been taken into the very core of the republican struggle and to feel solidarity with my oppressed kinfolk, but of course I did not feel at home on the Bogside. How could I, when simply to open my English mouth exposed me to prejudice and mistrust? When my experiences and my outlook, informed by a middle-class European upbringing, were so different from those of the people here? The Sinn Féin woman at the Advice Centre had remarked to me, "We're not sectarian here; Derry's not like Belfast," and I couldn't help marvelling, as we drove anxiously through suburbs daubed in red, white and blue, at the difference between her perspective and mine. As I saw it, a city divided into Catholic and Protestant halves was sectarian in character, and horribly so; and the assertion to the contrary, founded on a comparison with Belfast, was stunning. Was this woman unaware of the norms prevalent in the world outside the North of Ireland?

For most American readers, the experience of the writer's O'Neill relatives will be far more familiar than that of the Dakads. This makes for another interesting duality. The Irish chapters read like chiseled additions to a well-known frieze. Mr O'Neill is too gifted a writer to let his material slip into stale predictability; on the contrary, his pen punctures the bloated, somewhat Whiggish icons of modern Irish history and scratches instead a world in which no one knew what would happen next — nor, all to often, whom to trust. Mr O'Neill's Ireland is a world refreshed. His Levant — a Mediterranean littoral stretching from towns at the extreme east of Turkey's southern coast to Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel — is likely to be a world unknown. At the beginning of Joseph Dakad's life, in 1899, all of this territory was part of the Ottoman Empire. Joseph's family did not "move" from Syria to Turkey, because neither existed; they simply relocated within an empire. When the Treaty of Sèvres imposed new boundaries on the area, dividing it up between French and English mandates and the new, self-consciously secular nation of Turkey. Settling in the small Turkish port of Mersin, Joseph Dakad was making the best of a game of musical chairs: the music had come to an end, and that is where he found himself. And that is where, despite various setbacks attendant upon his protracted internment, and quite unlike the other grandfather (whom he never met), he prospered. But it was a tenuous prosperity, and his children did not remain in Turkey.

Joseph Dakak, born in the quintessential Levant port of Iskenderun, undoubtedly qualified as a Levantine in the pejorative sense. He spoke numerous languages, cut a suave figure, ran a hotel, did a bit of opportunistic import-export business, and generally made living at the intersection of east and west. As a metropolitan, uprooted Syrian he did not count as a proper Arab, who was to be found in the warlike, desert-loving tribes further south. Indeed, "The main characteristics of a Syrian," a 1902 travel handbook asserted, "are ease and courtesy, lightheartedness, hospitality, childishness, indolence and deceit. Under the exterior air of politeness and candour, there lurks in every Syrian an ingrained spirit of deceit. There is a common saying in the East that a Greek will get the better of 10 ordinary Europeans,; a Jew will beat 10 Greeks, an Armenian will get over 10 Jews; but that a Greek, a Jew and an Armenian together are no match for a Syrian."

1902 is not so very long ago — it is closer to my birth date than I am — but the world has changed hugely and convulsively since then, and sweeping generalizations such as the guidebook are now widely regarded as stupid at best. The world into which the grandfathers of Blood-Dark Track were born was a world of highly self-conscious races, hyperconscious, after a century of mounting obsession with "purity," of inclusions and exclusions. Their grandson is, in his person, an early flower on the grave of the racism that ever more clearly appears to have been the midwife of democracy. He has written a book that charts the journey of two families from the opposite ends of Europe as they journeyed from Then to Now. Blood-Dark Track ends, quite properly with knotty reflections, far from smoothly resolved, on the meaning of nationalism. At a time when its potential for wickedness is acknowledged outside of academic seminars, Mr O'Neill's affable study of the intersection of family and foreigners is even more urgent than it was published — in 2001. (August 2008)

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