The first story, an unfinished novel, Slattery's Sago Saga, starts marvelously well. A rich farmer emigrates to the USA to develop some new crop that has been refused in Ireland. He buys land in Texas but his first crop is ruined by oil and he becomes extremely rich. We are in O'Brien's standard style, yet with the twist of being slightly too realistic, normal in a way.
But then the wife of this oil-tycoon arrives in Ireland and wants to buy all the land, have potatoes strictly banned and replaced by the sago to avoid potato famines and to enable the Irish to stay in Ireland and not invade the USA into which they bring a tremendously long list of ills and evils. That is a crazy project that could be hilarious, but it is no science fiction novel but situated in the present of the author. So it runs short since it is difficult to imagine something as crazy as that in the present. He kept his feet in the mud, muck and sod. But the novel came to an abrupt end.
Then The Martyr's Crown is a war story about a woman who saved several Irish militiamen after an attack on British troops by plain lying to the British officer who comes knocking on her door to find out where the Irish militiamen had gone. The lie goes down easily because a middle-aged woman answering a young man something that could appear as an invitation to her bed must have destabilized his mind. But this is a recollection after crossing the son of that woman in the street who ignored our storyteller who was one of the militiamen. That leads to a smart conclusion by Flann O'Brien. You have on one side the men who were born in order to die for Ireland if need be, and on the other hand those who were plainly BORN for Ireland.
John Duffy's Brother is a very short story that could have been the starting point of an episode of The Twilight Zone. A simple man working in some kind of office wakes up one morning absolutely convinced he is a train. He goes to the office where everyone more or less entertains the game as a joke. But at home for lunch he suddenly realizes what had happened to him, is taken by some fright and examines his case. No damage done. Back at the office, late since he is no longer a train (just one grain of irony), he finds out his colleagues don't find the joke funny any more and he is cured of his strange case of in-object-ation as a train. Maybe a touch of satirical salt against this bureaucratic society where bureaucrats can only find some entertaining change in their life by impersonating or in-object-ating whatever may come across their fancy. Life is fun and fun is great life.
The short play, Thirst, is about how a publican, Mr. Coulahan (a relative of mine with this name) and two customers, caught by a sergeant of the Guard drinking in the pub after hours trap the sergeant with glib imaginative, even over-imaginative stories. It is winter, so they start telling about last summer, and then they move to a military campaign in Mesopotamia, (an antiquarian name for the Middle East). The exaggerations are so frightfully obvious that we wonder who could fall for them. The sergeant of course falls and there is "bribery, corruption and attempted [successful] suborning of the police force" three times, with three bottles of stout one after another. The Irish when they do something are not stingy on quantity. Better too much than not enough. The story is funny because of this exaggeration that works just as if it were the pure truth right out of the Bible or the mouth of God. They are so gullible these Irish, when it concerns drinking plain or stout or whiskey. Cheers all around and cheers again.
The main play, Faustus Kelly, is a very strange piece of dramatic writing. To inject the devil into Irish public life, to use the devil and the pact signed with him to get elected in the Irish Parliament is at least a provocation in this Catholic country. The suspense is not that well built. The confrontation of the characters is not that fascinating. You can always get elected if you get a lot of money, coming from who knows where, since no one checks, and if you have the help of the devil who will fill in the ballot boxes with the proper votes since no one can actually check if what they find in the box is what was really cast. He sure over-dramatizes the use of alcohol, or should I say the over-use and abuse of alcohol. He scratches the bureaucratic bureaucracy full of bureaucrats in Ireland and the final excommunication that not being SANCTONED by them is in Ireland and even among the Irish all over the world, except maybe Mexico. And the final twist is nothing but a twist: the devil tears up his pact with the failed candidate because Irish public life is not even worth his care and effort, certainly not his time. That's slightly easy but not funny one bit since the devil is acting then out of pure spite.
The last piece is hardly a story but it is a reflection on James Joyce. The main interest of it is the definition O'Brien gives of humor: "Humour, the handmaid of sorrow and fear [...] [James Joyce, the aestho-autogamic procreator of Stephen Dedalus] uses the thing [...] to attenuate the fear of those who have belief and who genuinely think that they will be in hell or in heaven shortly, and possibly very shortly. With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humour needs this background urgency." (p. 208)
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU