Sunday, September 2, 2012

Unreal Estate

Today's Sunday Guardian column

Shifty builders, corrupt politicians, and financial institutions ready to raise any amount of money in order to make more of it. All of them prowling about in a city being run into the ground so that a few can profit. That city could well be Mumbai, but in the case of Claire Kilroy’s just-published novel, The Devil I Know, it happens to be Dublin.

Aravind Adiga’s Mumbai-based Last Man in Tower deals with many of the same issues, but in a completely different manner. At times Dickensian, at times satirical, at times clunky, Adiga’s novel focuses on the greed of the middle-class hoping to profit from artificial property prices; Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, on the other hand, is a savagely farcical take on the malfeasance of those responsible for the bubble in the first place.

Set against the backdrop of the recent Irish economy boom-and-bust, this saga of unreal estate takes the form of a testimony given by Tristram Amory St Lawrence, the thirteenth Earl of Howth, who has returned to Ireland after years. The name, by the way, is that of a character in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, as is clear from the novel’s epigraph.

It is March 2016, and Tristram is on the witness stand. Over ten days, he proceeds to tell an enquiry commission of his part in the events that transpired eight years ago. The voice Kilroy gives her character is distinctive, self-aware and self-mocking: this mode of telling, combined with the testimony-like structure, is immediately familiar, being used most notably by Nabokov.

An interpreter for institutions such as the IMF and the EU, Tristram is forced to stop over in Dublin, his ancestral home, because of a plane mishap. Overnight he finds himself entangled in a web of deceit and avarice involving malleable property laws, avaricious real estate brokers and bribable government ministers, which proves to be not just his undoing but also of the others around him. As he puts it, “this is something of a grey area. There are no white areas in my tale”.

Throughout, Tristram asserts, he’s been in thrall to the mysterious, Machiavellian character he calls Monsieur Deauville who’s been pulling the strings behind the scenes. It is because of him that Tristram goes from becoming a translator of languages to one of money. A shell company is set up, of which Tristram is a representative and, and he tells the judge: “It bought nothing, sold nothing, manufactured nothing, did nothing, and yet…it returned a profit of €66 million that first year. Huge sums of untaxed money were channelled through it out to the shareholders of its parent companies, which is perfectly legal under Irish tax law, as you know. I did not make the laws. You made the laws….Me? I was merely the conduit….Who better to direct a shell company than a shell of a human being?”

One of the main strands of the novel, it becomes clear, is that of how much of the character of M. Deauville is real, what he actually stands for, and the nature of the Faustian bargain that Tristram strikes with him. These are aspects juggled by Kilroy till the very end, with some apt foreshadowing.

Tristram’s vibrant voice is a pleasure to read, especially for those on a meagre diet of conventional, realistic fiction. However, Kilroy is not above overstatement, occasionally employing groan-worthy puns to make her point. “We were sole traders. We had traded our souls,” is just one example.

Her skewering of those whose greed for pelf led to Ireland’s contemporary woes, though, is clearly born of deep anger. As Tristram puts it in one of the more resonant passages: “[A]cross the country people were digging themselves into big holes…big holes were spreading across Ireland like the pox, eating away at the heart of the island. Nobody was interested in negative sentiments.” It’s not just in Ireland that those big holes are growing more numerous.     

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