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Blood-Dark Track, 2

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I’m making good progress on my New Year’s resolution to read fewer books this year. Only yesterday did I finish Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track: A Family History, which I wrote about three weeks ago. In that post, I quoted from Colin Harrison’s 2002 review in the NYT:

As a boy, [O’Neill] became aware that his Turkish grandfather, Joseph Dakad, had been imprisoned in Palestine during World War II. ”A shiver of an explanation accompanied this information,” O’Neill writes; ”the detention had something to do with spying for the Germans.” He also learned that his Irish grandfather, James O’Neill, had been jailed in Ireland during the same war, a member of the Irish Republican Army. But in neither case were more details forthcoming. O’Neill’s parents rarely discussed the men whose names he shared.

”Blood-Dark Track” is O’Neill’s reconstruction of the lives of his grandfathers, what he calls ”a slow, idiotic awakening” that for the reader is anything but. Rather, the book is an enormously intelligent plunge into the World War II era that involves, among other elements, an unsolved 65-year-old murder, a rusted pistol, clandestine train travel and assignations in the dark. O’Neill, who is the author of two novels, adeptly makes scene and character where otherwise there might be only chronology, but he also draws on his experience as a lawyer for insight into the Realpolitik of armies, embassies, prisons and families — or anywhere else men and power inevitably collide.

O’Neill’s account of his grandfathers’ lives and milieus is riveting. The book’s pace varies, as we alternate between narrative passages of family history; O’Neill’s meetings in Ireland, Turkey, and Israel with family members and others (or their descendants) whose lives overlapped the two grandfathers’; and musings on the decisions his grandfathers made in complex political circumstances.

O’Neill’s Turkish grandfather appears to have had little understanding of just what those circumstances were, as his hometown of Mersin becomes a World War II crossroad between Europe and the Middle East, with Germans, French, and British routinely passing through. The Irish grandfather, in contrast, is savvier politically, and well connected with IRA leadership in Cork.

Looking back, I see that I marked three passages. I’ll quote from them.

First, a description of Irish grandfather Jim O’Neill.

He believed, for example, in using physical force on his sons. If, driving his car, you braked going into a curve, he’d whack your ear from the passenger seat. … Jim, with his limited education, was not one to view argument as a vehicle of enlightenment. Even allowing for this, my father still couldn’t fathom exactly what my grandfather’s problem was. “Joe, he was so irrational; I couldn’t rationalize the violence at all.” My father told me this one morning in 1996. We were driving to Oxford, where later that day the university would confer a degree on my younger sister, Elizabeth. … “I used to dread him coming home at night. I was petrified he’d find a reason to punch or kick me. Your mother said to me, maybe you had misconceptions. Well, those right hooks and left crochets were not misconceptions.” …

“Years later, I came back to Ireland as a married man and I took him out for a drink. ‘There are some things I’d like to clear up,” I said, and I asked him why he’d behaved in the way he had. He said things like, ‘You’ve got to be cruel to be kind.’ I said to him, ‘Everything you did in your life, I swear I’ll do the opposite.’ And that’s how it turned out. His intolerance, his failure to explain anything—they’ve acted as spurs for me.” We sat for a little while in silence, traveling in rain. Then my father said—and here his ambivalence about Jim, whose name he gave to my younger brother surfaced—”You know, having said all that, if he walked through the door today I’d be very comfortable with him. I’d have no problem having a beer and a chat. And if he hadn’t been my father, I’m sure I’d have liked and respected him as a friend. There was a lot about him that was admirable. … Ireland in those days was a different world, you wouldn’t believe how narrow and bleak things were. Yet, in spite of it all, he managed to bring up a family of ten kids. … He was a relentless worker,” my father said. “He worked for us night and day.”

In trying to determine why his grandfather Joseph Dakak was detained and imprisoned by the British, O’Neill investigates the case of a fellow detainee, Nazim Gandour, whom Joseph believed was spying on him for the British but who appears to have been a victim as well.

The Gandour affair undermined any notion that the fact of internment was some kind of indication of the existence of good grounds for internment; because the closer one looked into the matter, the more apparent it became that the smoke surrounding Gandour was traceable not to the fumes produced by the wilful confusions of the attachés and the secretaries and the lieutenant-colonels. In the end there was little doubt that the treatment of Nazim Gandour was, applying normal standards of justice, almost comically unfair. He was not charged with, let alone convicted of, any offence. He was denied access to a lawyer. He was detained indefinitely, by security forces accountable to no one, on the grounds of mere suspicion. He was not properly, if at all, informed of that which he was suspected of having done; and—most bizarrely of all—the suspect ors themselves were unsure about what specific wrongs they suspected Gandour of … not one of these bureaucratic Chinese whisperers was able to grasp or spell out precisely that the case against Nazim Gandour was. Then again, there never was a case against Gandour as such. … his fate—from his arrest to his eventual release—was in the hands of persons with no real interesting (as Normal Mayers put it) “the furtherance of justice”; and Joseph Dakak, it could be assumed, was subject to the same regime.

This sounds eerily familiar. War comes in the door; the rule of law goes out.

In the passage below, O’Neill reflects on his own secondary education at the British School in the Netherlands. (I should explain that what I call his Turkish family was really a Syrian Christian family that had moved up the Mediterranean coast to Mersin and for whom French was still a language of the home, along with Arabic.)

The students were mainly the children of diplomats and of scientists and technocrats working for large enterprises like the European Space and Technology Centre, Shell Oil, and Unilever. It was a multinational set-up: I had British, Italian, Gambian, Australian, Portuguese friends. We were all in the same boat, pleasantly adrift from our native land. Necessariy, our relationship with that place was, to a greater or lesser degree, fantastical. For the non-British, the matter was doubly complicated, since in addition to cultivating an expatriate conception of our place of origin we had to construct a relationship with England, whose culture and educational qualifications we were acquiring at school and whose universities and jobs beckoned. For those of us from two different non-British countries, things were triply unstraightforward; quadruply so if, like me and my siblings, you spoke Dutch and hung out for many years with Dutch friends; and, finally, quintuple tricky if, on top of the aforementioned complexities, you spoke French at home.

But it never occurred to me, faced with Turkish, English, Dutch and French possibilities, to relinquish or even question my identity as an Irishman—not even when, walking as a teenager in The Hague, a couple of Dutch girls I’d never seen in my life shouted, “Vuile Turk!” (Filthy Turk!) at me.

These passages are by no means representative in terms of the book’s scope and its depth. But they are representative of O’Neill’s superb writing. His insights into the Irish political situation of the last century are particularly enlightening.

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