The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain

dirtydustDon’t know if I am in the Pound grave, or the Fifteen Shilling grave? Fuck them anyway if they plonked me in the Ten Shilling plot after all the warnings I gave them. The morning I died I calls Patrick in from the kitchen, “I’m begging you Patrick, I’m begging you, put me in the Pound grave, the Pound grave! I know some of us are buried in the Ten Shilling grave, but all the same…”

— first paragraph of the novel and introduction to our protagonist, Catriona Paudeen, newly interred in the cemetery clay.

You see, all the characters in The Dirty Dust are dead. And they will not shut up about it. All the petty squabbles, the timeless gossip, matters of inheritance and land ownership, continue underground. Indeed, Catriona as a corpse, much like in life, is almost entirely motivated by a feud with her hated sister, Nell. Her greatest wish is that no one be buried in the cemetery before her.

The novel is entirely dialogue. Unattributed dialogue. You get the hang of who is speaking by the manner in which they speak. Some are really obvious like the guy who is always bitching about his faulty heart or the guy always cursing Billy the Postman (who married his wife shortly after his death) or the french guy or the guy who starts every sentence with “Bloody tear and ‘ounds, Catriona!”, but sometimes it’s much less clear, often on purpose. Just a cacophony of voices of the dead. On top of that, some characters don’t even get names, but are referred to by their relationship to others — Nora Johnny’s daughter or Tom’s old one, for instance. There’s also two different Tom’s (Redser Tom and Fireside Tom) and Tim Top ‘O the Road. A motley crew. It achieves the desired effect of making you, the reader, feel like you’re in a crowded pub catching pieces of conversation without ever having the full context.

Part of the mystique of The Dirty Dust is that it was written in 40s, in irish, and only just now translated into english, partially due to the mistaken notion that O Cadhain, an ardent IRA supporter, never wished it to be translated. There’s much praise on the cover that it’s the greatest novel ever written in irish. The praise goes further into grandiose ultimate truth territory by declaring that the novel reveals some axiomatic elements of human nature. I guess there’s something to it. By reading some humans gossip, you can extrapolate that, yes, all humans gossip. Feels kind of banal and useless though.

Instead, the real triumph of this novel is how perfectly O Cadhain wrote dialogue that sounds like how people speak. This is no easy feat. The repetition, missayings, inconsistencies, and contradictions of human speech cannot be directly transcribed and remain enjoyable (not to mention sensical) to read. So it’s a real skill to be able to achieve that effect anyway. Behold, an excerpt, at random:

– What kind of cut or shape of woman was she?

– A long tall sally. Blondy hair dripping down her back.

– Earrings?

– Of course.

– Dark eyes?

– I haven’t a clue what kind of eyes she had. I wasn’t thinking about them…

– A broad bright grin?

– She was gawping away at the Master all right. But she wasn’t gawping at me…

– Did you hear where she hangs out?

– No I didn’t. But she’s working at Barrie’s Bookies, if there’s such a joint. The Derry Lough Master and the Priest’s sister are getting married next month. They say he’ll get a new school.

– The one with the pants?

– The very one.

– Isn’t that weird she’d marry him?

– Why so? Isn’t he a fine looking specimen, and he doesn’t touch a drop.

– But all the same. It’s not every man would want to marry a woman who wears trousers. They’d be a bit more pernickety than other women…

– Ah, cop on and get an ounce of sense! My own son is married to a French one in England and you wouldn’t have the least clue on God’s earth what she was gabbling on about no more than the gobshite buried over here. Shouldn’t she be even more pernickety than any one that wears a pair of pants…

There’s no narrative arc. The book could have gone on another three hundred pages. Or three thousand. Or it could have ended two hundred sooner. A bunch of corpses nattering, endlessly, ad infinitum. This is why I’m going to categorize The Dirty Dust as something interesting to read, something I don’t regret reading. But, while sometimes funny or engaging, it wasn’t all that enjoyable. Not one of those books I just can’t wait to dive back into, but one of those books that left an impression somewhere; I can still hear the voices blathering on down below in the dirty dust.

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