Every so often you come across a book that no one else has read and seems to have passed under the radar and you wonder how it got away. One of those books is My Traitor by the French author Sorj Chalandon. First published in 2007 in France and the winner of several prizes, it was published here in the summer of 2011. Chalandon was a reporter for the French newspaper Liberation for over thirty years until 2008 writing in particular about Northern Ireland. Asked by many why he didn't write something beyond the structure of a newspaper article, it was the revelation on Christmas Eve 2005 that an important member of the Republican movement well-known by Chalandon had confessed to being a traitor that led him to turn to writing. My Traitor is the result.
With a completely unique approach to telling the story of the northern struggle, Chalandon tells the story through the voice of Antoine, a Parisian violin maker who on the spur of the moment on a visit to Dublin takes the train to Belfast. His subsequent acceptance into the community of Belfast Nationalists brings a feeling of kinship that he clings on to and he returns regularly, becoming both a witness to situation in the North in the late 70s and a sympathiser with the Republican demands. In particular he is taken under the wing of Tyrone Meehan, a high-ranking IRA member. Spending time with the people of Belfast, he becomes dissatisfied with his life in Paris and increasingly isolated from his friends as he continually talks of the Irish situation. Living almost in limbo, no longer feeling part of his own community in Paris but never truly one of the people in Belfast, he gives more to the movement by letting people stay temporarily in a bedsit above his Paris workshop and asking no questions.
The quality of the story-telling is superb. It spares nothing in the description of the bleakness and also of the closeness of the community of late 70s and early 80s Belfast; the poverty, the poor living conditions, the lives of wives and mothers with sons and husbands in Long Kesh prison, the drinking, the hunger strikes and the late night raids on suspected IRA houses. The cleverness of this story is that it is written with a voice of someone from the outside looking in; although the protagonists sympathies are with the Republicans they are always described with an outsiders eyes. And another skill of the storytelling is that even though the book is titled My Traitor and that Meehan is named possessively by Antoine as 'my traitor' through the book, we are almost as surprised as Antoine when in 2005 on the laying down of arms by the IRA he reads the newspaper story of Meehan's confession as a traitor, falling down in the street in shock.
This is a book that deserves much more attention. Recognised in France, largely helped by the authors name as a reporter, it should be recognised here also.
Published by The Lilliput Press
(An interesting article in The Irish Times from March this year about Sorj Chalandon can be seen here and mentions his most recent novel Retour á Killybegs -not yet translated from the French.