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“This serves as a reminder”: Paul Lynch, winner of the Booker prize, discusses his novel centered on a totalitarian Ireland.


The renowned trickster has greatly impacted my life through various unpredictable means,” says Irish author Paul Lynch the day after receiving the Booker Prize for his novel Prophet Song, which depicts a scenario of Ireland under a fascist regime. The past few years have been quite tumultuous since he began writing the book in 2018: his son was born, he battled long Covid which hindered his writing progress, and he also faced a cancer diagnosis and separation from his spouse. And now, he has achieved the highest honor in contemporary literature. “It all feels like a dream,” he reflects on his victory. “I feel like I’ve entered my own alternate reality, like in the movie ‘Sliding Doors’.”

Prior to starting the novel, Lynch had dedicated several months to writing a book that ultimately proved to be unsatisfactory. However, on a Friday afternoon, he had a realization that it was a lost cause. The following Monday, he sat in his garden shed in Dublin, opened a fresh Word document, and the initial page of Prophet Song came to him almost exactly as it is presented in the book. He considers this experience to be one of the remarkable occurrences in his writing career. He explains, “The entire significance of what would unfold in the book is embedded in those first few lines, yet I had no idea what I would write.”

The beginning of the story features a knock at the door on a suburban street in Dublin. Two members of the recently established Irish secret police are searching for Larry Stack, Eilish’s husband and a leader in the teaching trade union. As we progress through the story, we are pulled into Eilish’s life as her husband and eldest son are forcibly taken away. As surveillance and government control increase, the country plunges into a full-blown civil war. Democracies can deteriorate slowly and then suddenly, as Hemingway once said.

Lynch describes the novel as a “test of extreme compassion” and it is difficult not to draw parallels between the depicted scenes of a besieged city, with constant shelling and walls covered in images of missing family members, to current conflict zones around the globe. Additionally, the ongoing refugee crisis and the growing presence of right-wing extremism further highlight the relevance of the novel. Recently, Dublin was shaken by violent protests against immigration. Lynch remarks, “This serves as a reminder that the far right exists in our midst, even if it is a small presence.”

‘Too often, writers of political fiction believe they have the answers’ … Prophet Song.

In 2018, Lynch was heavily impacted by the ongoing situation in Syria, particularly the heartbreaking death of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy whose body was found on a beach in Turkey. This event made Lynch question why she did not feel more emotional about it, leading her to realize her desensitization to the news. She noticed this same phenomenon happening with the news coverage of the Middle East and Ukraine, acknowledging that it is inevitable for people to become overwhelmed if they truly absorbed all the world’s tragedies.

He dislikes being labeled as a “political novelist”, but he understands it will be difficult to change that perception. He rejects comparisons between Prophet Song and well-known dystopian works such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. He believes that many political fiction writers assume they have all the solutions, and know what needs to be fixed. Instead, he is more focused on posing questions. His novel is primarily about grief, and the things that are out of our control, beyond our reach, and lost. He draws inspiration from works like Don DeLillo’s Mao II and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with the latter’s influence evident in the dark tone of his pages.

At the age of 46, Lynch has a passion for writing novels that explore the depths of the human soul. He believes that creating art is not a logical process, as one cannot simply sit down and decide what to address. In one of his works, he wanted to evoke the feeling of desperation that comes with the idea of risking your life and your children’s lives by taking a small boat with strangers in the middle of the night. He explains that his goal was to make the reader face this reality and not turn away from it. He wanted to capture a true sense of inevitability that would prevent readers from averting their gaze or saying, “I don’t want to see this.”

‘I’ve stepped into my own Sliding Doors counterfactual narrative!’ … Lynch winning the award on Sunday.

He is successful. The book is written in lengthy, emotionally charged sentences without breaks or quotations, immersing the reader in a 300-page horror. He explains, “There is no respite, no way out. The events are consuming you, and thus the paragraphs are absent because there should be no empty space. Just as Eilish has no room to breathe, neither should the reader.”

Lynch writes and speaks in a similar manner. His novel is set in either a near-future or an alternate version of Ireland, but it does not mention any specific Irish history or political parties. This lack of detail gives the story a timeless and legendary feel. Lynch took inspiration from The Iliad and flipped it on its head, removing all the heroic and political elements. The focus is now on the everyday people in the background who are dealing with the aftermath. The novel centers on a woman’s determined efforts to keep her family together, making politics intensely personal. Despite the state of emergency, life goes on as usual – babies teethe, children grow, and siblings argue over the TV remote. Lynch explains, “My daily routine involves pushing a trolley around Lidl and Aldi – that’s my reality. Let’s focus on the nitty-gritty details, because that’s what makes this book authentic.”

He also aimed to demonstrate how the concept of a world-ending event has been present throughout history. “The notion of armageddon is essentially a fantasy; the belief that the world will abruptly come to an end during one’s lifetime. However, the world is in a constant state of ending and beginning. It comes to your doorstep and knocks on your door.”

Soon after submitting his manuscript for Prophet Song, Lynch received an unexpected visitor at his doorstep. At 45 years old, he believed he was writing at his best, but then he received the news that he had a tumor on his kidney. This diagnosis shattered his sense of invincibility and made him realize his vulnerability. He couldn’t imagine not being around for his two children. After undergoing surgery and immunotherapy, doctors have assured him that the chances of the cancer returning are slim. He is choosing to trust their words and move forward with determination.

‘I’m sort of finding out again who I am now’ … Lynch.

One year after undergoing surgery, he found out he had made it onto the Booker shortlist. Around the same time, his marriage also ended. He reflects, “With all the changes in my life, I am rediscovering who I am. My daily personality is constantly evolving and being reshaped.”

Lynch, the second of three siblings, was born in Limerick in the south-western region of Ireland. However, his family later relocated to Donegal, where he spent his childhood in the remote area of Malin Head. He reflects on the raw and exposed landscape of his upbringing, still able to recall the sound of the wind and the vastness of the sky imprinted on his psyche. This elemental environment has greatly influenced his writing style. He vividly remembers a moment when the wind was so strong it lifted him off his feet and caused him to hit his head, resulting in a minor concussion. He compares this sensation to the overwhelming feeling of winning the Booker prize.

At 1am, he phoned his parents to share the news. To them, it felt like a fairytale. They were aware of the difficult years he had endured. His mother was an educator for adults who struggled with literacy. She had taught him how to read at the age of four, using flash cards from a cereal box, much like Eilish in the book. At the age of 11, she helped him secure a job at a secondhand bookstore because he was always craving new books. Reflecting on his past, he credits his mother for greatly influencing the person he has become.

Lynch’s previous works, including Red Sky in Morning (2013), The Black Snow (2014), Grace (2017), and Beyond the Sea (2019), all revolve around Irish history and feature characters who endure struggles. However, Prophet Song stands out as the bleakest of them all. Lynch acknowledges that he holds a tragic worldview as a writer. He had the final line of the novel in mind from the beginning and wrote towards it. Despite this, was there a point where he considered giving Eilish a happy ending? Is there any hope in the story? In response, Lynch kindly admonishes me for asking such a question and questions the importance of providing solace to readers. He believes in being truthful in his writing and not deceiving readers with happy or sad endings.

However, he procrastinated writing the concluding chapters for several months. Then, one night he had a dream and woke up with the realization that he knew how to finish them. He then drove to a remote countryside cottage to escape the chaos of being at home with his young children. This occurred during the pandemic and, interestingly, he had to defy curfew rules to do so. As he drove, he contemplated potential excuses he could use if caught, similar to Eilish in his novel. He found the situation to be quite bizarre. Typically, he is a slow and meticulous writer, satisfied with only 200 words per day. However, during those five days at the cottage, he managed to write 9,000 words. The story had been building up inside him for months and finally burst out onto the page.

He claims that all of his books explore the theme of “the value of humanity in a world that is uncaring and foreign”. He believes that life is full of suffering, but also has moments of beauty. He finds endless fascination in the spectrum between these two extremes.

Source: theguardian.com