“Who was he, who was he? Did he labour under the whip of his father, or was he treated with gentleness and respect? Names, names, all passed away, forgotten, mere birdsong in the bushes of things.”What an image to characterize the ephemeral existence of a human being - "mere birdsong in the bushes of things." Such word magic caused me to sit up in bed and wonder in awe - both at the meaning of the image and at the mind of the writer.
Roseanne McNulty lives in an Irish asylum. She thinks she may be 100. Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture paints her portrait using peripheral vision, with shadows and reflections, with the movement of curtains in the wind, with the ripples on the water.
Barry sees Roseanne and the people around her in ultra slow motion capturing the signals, invisible to most people observing at normal speeds, that, like pieces of bone to archeologists, reveal their souls. It’s so slow. So powerful. So unlike the superficial flash we’re used to.
Writing, through the eyes of Roseanne, about Dr. Greene, who looks after the patients in the asylum . . .
Then he sat there in his own version of silence for a long while. He sat so long he was almost an inmate of the room! As if he lived there himself, as if he had nowhere to go to, nothing to do, no one to attend.Wow! "[T]hat stare that faces have in portraits." "[T]he most mysterious, human, and rich of all distances." Barry sees the invisible. How much of life am I missing?
He sat in the chill light. The river, drowned in its own water, and drowned a second time in the rains of February, was not in a position to throw its light. The window-glass was severely itself. Only the still grass of winter lent it a slight besmirch of green. His eyes, now much clearer somehow and more distinct without the beard, were looking forwards as if at an object about a yard away, that stare that faces have in portraits. I sat on the bed and without the slightest embarrassment watched him, because he wasn’t watching me at all. He was looking into that strange place, the middle distance, the most mysterious, human, and rich of all distances. And from his eyes came slowly tears, immaculate human tears, before the world touches them. River, window and eyes.
Over and over again he daubs images onto the page and I think, where did that come from and what’s it doing here? And then he pulls it all together - “River, window and eyes.”
Here's another one. Roseanne reflects about her husband who fished for salmon.
Most of the time, he stood by the lake, watching the dark waters. If he saw a salmon jumping, he went home. If you see a salmon, you will never catch one that day. But the art of not seeing a salmon is very dark too, you must stare and stare at the known sections where salmon are sometimes got, and imagine them down there, feel them there, sense them with some seventh sense. My husband Tom fished for ten years for salmon in that way. As a matter of record he never caught a salmon. So if you saw a salmon it seems you would not catch one, and if you did not see a salmon you would not catch one. So how would you catch one? By some third mystery of luck and instinct, that Tom did not have.Dark waters. Barry paints with dark waters. With "some third mystery of luck and instinct." Where is this going, I’m thinking, and then I read on:
But that was how Dr. Greene struck me today, as he sat in silence in my little quarters, his neat form stretched out on the chair, saying nothing, not exactly watching me with his eyes, but watching me with his luck and instincts, like a fisherman beside dark water.The patient's view of the doctor! It’s with these tiny brush strokes that Barry paints his portraits. I’m not reading a book as much as watching a painter starting with a blank canvas. He mixes his paints, he draws some lines on the canvas. Slowly daubs marks here and there. Slowly, slowly the thin pencil lines gain dark color and richness and the souls of people are revealed.
Oh, yes, like a salmon I felt, right enough, and stilled myself in the deep water, very conscious of him, and his rod, and his fly, and his hook.
This isn’t a book for everybody. It's too slow. We aren't use to paying painfully slow attention to amorphous signs. To looking without looking. I’d once recommended Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country to a good friend. He couldn’t finish the short novel. His verdict, “Nothing happens.” It’s inside that nothing that everything happens. The same in The Secret Scriptures.