restricted access The Language of Displacement
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The Language of Displacement
Beheading the Virgin Mary
Donal McLaughlin
Dalkey Archive Press
201 Pages; Print, $13.95
The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons
Monica Cantieni
Donal McLaughlin, trans.
Seagull Books
228 Pages; Print, $21.00

inline graphicDonal McLaughlin seems to specialize in the language of displacement. Both as an author and a translator, he narrates the inner lives of characters at odds with their surroundings. His prose demands a careful reading, as the reader is often plunged into a new setting or situation with minimal exposition. McLaughlin is not as interested in explaining the world as he is in the human beings who are forced to live in it.

Beheading the Virgin Mary is McLaughlin’s new collection of interconnected short stories. It makes for a fitting companion to his translation of Swiss novelist Monica Cantieni’s The Encyclopedia of Good Reasons. Both books are about rootlessness, and the task of making a home without a sense of belonging. McLaughlin’s stories follow episodes in the lives of Irish expatriates in Scotland from the 1970’s to the present. Cantieni’s novel is narrated by an orphaned child, whose complexion is “darker” than that of her dysfunctional adopted Swiss family, and who must learn to speak German with the help of her adoptive grandfather, with whom she collects words in categorized boxes (the “Encyclopaedia” of the title).

The two books also share in common the backdrop of the 1970s. In Switzerland, this coincides with a divisive public referendum on immigration. In Ireland, this was the height of the Troubles, though for McLaughlin’s expatriates this tragic event is experienced though a series of phone calls. Even as McLaughlin’s characters advance though the following decades, their youth in the 1970s defines them.

McLaughlin was born in Ireland, and moved to Scotland as child. One imagines that the mere act of speaking aloud required some courage. The collection of tales found in Beheading the Virgin Mary and Other Stories follows an Irish family over a period of decades, concentrating in particular, though not exclusively, on young Liam as he comes of age, though alternating stories venture away from this fragmented chronicle and into the lives of other friends and neighbors.

McLaughlin enjoys breaking open the kinds of memories that are too easily trapped in amber. In an early story called “The Age of Reason,” Liam, still one of the “weans” at about age ten or eleven, takes a shortcut through a grassy field on the way to Mass and does not discover until firmly ensconced in his pew that he has trodden in dogshit. His attempts to rid himself of the odorous mark with a single tissue whilst in the midst of solemn ceremony are related with a Poe-like obsessiveness. McLaughlin clearly remembers an oft-overlooked aspect of childhood—the daily struggle against humiliation. Here, the subterfuge required to hide the incriminating hanky eclipses the miracle of transubstantiation. That Liam happily leaves it behind on the church floor at the final moment of escape prefigures much of what follows in later stories with regard to the role of religion in the lives of these characters, many of whom struggle with secrets or, not coincidentally, with finding the strength to confess to someone. I doubt McLaughlin will be writing love letters to the Church anytime soon, but his characters carry narratives of downfall and redemption in their very blood and bones.

“The Way to a Man’s Heart,” perhaps the most accessible story in the collection, is a prime example. Set up by a friend, Sean McNulty drives across Scotland “to screw a bloody whore.” He’s been roped into it somehow by a friend, and he is angry—at life, at women, at everything it seems. When he meets Goldie at her home he is unimpressed, but he stays. A few platonic hours later, the ice within him has melted, and he is sentimentally becoming attached to the woman he did not sleep with. The intervening hours feature nothing more than small talk and Irish stew, but, as the story illustrates quite movingly...