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The study of betrayal seems to be a growth industry. Gerry Smyth’s Judas Kiss is a worthy addition to a critical literature—including Kristina Mendecino and Betiel Wasihun’s Playing False (2013), James Heffernan’s Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature (2014), and my own forthcoming Joycean Betrayal—that has increasingly recognized betrayal as not merely a recurring theme but as a fundamental part of the way we think (and write) our relation to those around us. This near universality is, of course, both a boon and a burden to any academic study, and at times The Judas Kiss is caught between two desires: to explore betrayal in its most general and in its most specific formations. So though Smyth explores betrayal specifically in the “modern Irish novel,” the book is framed by an awareness that “Betrayal is everywhere: in the books we read, the films we watch and the music to which we listen” (14). If betrayal is indeed “everywhere,” then the process of selecting and refining the contents of any book on betrayal is necessarily fraught. Smyth’s subtitle announces his intentions cautiously: rather than the potentially hubristic “Treason and Betrayal in the Modern Irish Novel,” he chooses the more literally descriptive “Treason and Betrayal in Six Modern Irish Novels.” But despite the title, the author is not at all reticent to tackle the bigger questions.
Smyth sets his stall out clearly and early: “I want to reject at the outset the idea of some kind of inherent Irish proclivity for or susceptibility to treachery” (3). This is an obvious point, but one that nevertheless needed making. Irish history really does appear at times to be unusually rife with accounts of treachery and betrayal, and any commentator needs to carefully consider what has caused this particular narrative to accumulate. Smyth, at least, reads the role of betrayal in Irish history as partly self-selecting (Irish history is full of betrayal because, from early on, it was being read and written with betrayal in mind) and as partly a response to the unusual (though by no means exceptional), real-life range of opportunities for treachery in Ireland’s complex history. In this sense, this book is, without ever really saying so directly, a postcolonial critique, since it is specifically Ireland’s history of colonial occupation and subjugation that drives the kind of split loyalties on which betrayal thrives.
Few, I imagine, would be eager to disagree with this basic approach, though I wonder whether more time could have been spent considering the implications of the opposite argument. Smyth briskly (and rightly) dismisses as a “propagandist” Gerald of Wales, who wrote in 1185 that the Irish “above all other peoples … always practice treachery” (3). Yet for very different reasons James Joyce makes essentially this same argument repeatedly in his fiction and non-fiction, suggesting memorably in “Fenianism: The Last Fenian” that “in Ireland … an informer always appears.”1 However, the key point is that regardless of any spurious racial or cultural propensity to “break oaths,” Irish history, with its “faction and strife,” is a “context primed for deception.” The argument, simply put, is that a history of suppression, of mixed and competing loyalties constantly redrawn, of disappointingly regular failures, is bound to take something that is implicit in communal life—betrayal—and make it an unusually constituent part of that history. Smyth’s point is not so far removed from those made by Seamus Deane, who has depicted Irish history as an “inescapable category,” as something that “happened to” the Irish subject in an endlessly repeating series of re-enactments of violence, disappointment, and suffering—a “nightmare,” as Stephen Dedalus would have it, from which one must try to awake. Irish culture, in its broadest sense, can be seen to return repeatedly to betrayal as one particularly appropriate way to express this experience of powerlessness and fatigue. The fatigue of a nation of people for whom, in Deane’s terms, history is synonymous with “usurpation, deceit, self-cancellation...