The Gamal By Ciarán Collins, Bloomsbury, Rs 499
“Don’t be expecting any big flowery longwinded poetic picturesque horses*** passages in this book explaining the look of something. If I have to go into that much detail I’ll take a photograph or draw a picture. This is for people like myself who hate reading.”
And so the reader meets Charlie McCarthy, who is 25 years old and is writing about a slew of incidents which occurred five years ago in the Irish town of Ballyronan, tragedies that left him so traumatized that he developed post traumatic stress disorder and still has not recovered from it. And on top of that, there are his problems as a “gamal” (“a bit of a God help us”). Gamal is short for gamalóg, which in Irish means someone who is ‘different’ — often a simpleton or fool. Charlie cannot seem to do anything right; he wears his shirt back to front without meaning to, splashes his Lucozade on his clothes at the watering hole, and says the most inappropriate of things at funerals. So he lives as the gamal. In doctorspeak, that’s “Oppositional Defiant Disorder”. In ordinary terms, it means that Charlie cannot resist telling readers over and over again how unwilling he is to be writing what we’re reading and what a complete waste of time all this is. Underneath it all, Charlie is congenitally perverse and unwilling to cooperate, but he is far from the village idiot people consider him to be. There are clear benefits to having to live life as a gamal; it leaves Charlie with the freedom to act and speak as he pleases. Not that he does much of either; he is, instead, a sharp observer. For two years “after the things that happened,” Charlie was unable to do anything at all. “I just was.” His trauma involved his friends, Sinéad and James, who were in love with each other. His first accounts of Sinéad are all in the past tense; from the very outset, the reader knows that she is dead. But we don’t know much else; nor do we know much about James, except that he and Sinéad were Charlie’s only friends in a school where bullying was rampant.
Young boys who are emotionally or intellectually challenged are especially popular: there is the teenaged, autistic narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the darkly funny, mentally unsound ‘Butcher Boy’ in Patrick McCabe’s work of the same name. Following in the footsteps of his literary brothers — rarely are these narrators ever female — Charlie, the gamal, is a savant. He is gifted with astonishing insight, keen powers of observation and intellectual prowess, all of which he used only when he needs to.
However, for the first hundred pages — in spite of Charlie saying things like “Sometimes I think I’m like the cameraman who let it happen. Other times I know I’m not. I didn’t let nothing happen. And I did nothing. I know it.” — the reader remains puzzled about the misfortune that befell Sinéad and James. One still has next to no idea what the “it” that Charlie refers to is. Neither does one know how “it” happened, and the wait to reach such important details proves to be excruciating after a point. One very gradually finds out more about Sinéad’s death and its all-encompassing aftermath through transcripts of testimony given by secondary characters, but there is no way of knowing whether the testimony is indeed true, and what these characters might stand to gain if they lied.
The story unravels bit by bit, with little context, creating still more foreshadowing but very little sense of the real tragedy until well past the halfway mark of this thick book. At that point, however, the author, Ciarán Collins (picture), makes up for lost time. His deft shaping of the characters, especially those that are secondary, makes the ugliness which precipitates among these school “friends”, and which results in a terrible death, bone-chilling.
But Collins’s triumph in the novel lies with Charlie, who is both youthfully inexperienced and all-knowing. His narration is bolstered with a devious, cunning humour that is an absolute joy to read: “I decided there was no point in being a gamal if you’re not ignorant.” As a result of this delightful slyness, the reader often wonders if Charlie is really as foolish and uncomplicated as people think. “You won’t like me,” he says. “Mainly because you know I don’t care whether you like me or not.” The truth is that Charlie’s razor-sharp, hilarious comments about the people around him, his eccentricities and his deliberate stubbornness are the very reasons that readers like him. This is because, far from not being bothered about what his reader thinks, Charlie has a disconcerting, unsettling voice; the voice of a storyteller who is making a huge effort to convince his listeners or readers of what he has to say. And so, as a reader, you end up liking Charlie, but you just cannot bring yourself to place your trust in him.
One often feels that Charlie has been steering the narrative to suit his himself all through the book. He does away with scenes and situations that show Sinéad in a poor light; he only mentions in passing the warnings he had received, about his drinking habits and his unhealthy obsession with Sinéad. His “main shrink”, Dr Quinn, prods him minutely about the bonds he shares with the women in his life and the ones he meets. But even when Charlie quotes from court transcripts, he interrupts, rephrases, rewrites and edits in order to convey what it is that he wants to say.
There’s a clear hark back to The Catcher in the Rye in the last few pages of the book, but Charlie, unlike Holden, recognizes that the ‘phonies’ in his universe are very few and far between. Collins possesses a keen sense of the dynamics at play in a small town; he is also sensitive to the more serious effects that trauma can have on someone like Charlie. Some of his characters are vile; they never move too far away from the cruelty that is regularly seen among young, small-town bullies. And his idea of a large-scale, terrible end is daunting. It is the pervasive feeling that no one can be trusted that takes The Gamal beyond narrative gamesmanship.