Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away
Homer, The Iliad
Recently in literary fiction, there has been a resurgence in the idea of retelling – returning to myth and classic literature to see what a reframing can tell us about society today. In We That Are Young, Preti Taneji explored modern day India through the lens of King Lear, while Colm Toibin (House of Names), Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire) and Pat Barker (The Silence of the Girls) have mined the Greek myths for inspiration. Today, the rise of extremist politics coupled with the threat to democratic institutions means that these Ancient Greek tragedies still seem to have relevant to say to a modern audience.
Michael Hughes’ Country is a thrilling and clever retelling of Homer’s Iliad set in the border country of Northern Ireland in 1996.
After twenty-five years of conflict, there is finally an uneasy ceasefire. However, not everyone is happy.
An IRA gang is plotting an attack on a local British Army base, unhappy with the public handshakes in this changing political climate. An altercation between unit leader Pig and his star sniper Achill means that their own internal fighting poses just as much of a threat as the British Army. Added to their troubles is the fact that one of their own, Nellie, has turned informer and the only foreseeable outcome is betrayal and annihilation, as the omnipotent powers that be watch on.
Hughes skillfully matches his characters to their Greek compatriots without being heavy handed. Achill, ‘the best sniper the IRA has ever seen’ is Achilles, the great soldier. Agamemnon becomes Pig the boss, while Helen of Troy is Nellie – a beautiful young woman tricked into informing on her once husband and family. Pat, Achill’s best friend, is the doomed Patroclus while his nemesis Hector becomes decorated SAS soldier Henry, close to the end of his tour of Northern Ireland but doomed to have his fate tied forever to these lawless lands.
The characters are not the only link to Homer’s epic poem. The town’s Army Barracks is nicknamed Illiam while the local pub is The Ships, while the authorial voice frames the narrative within the oral storytelling tradition from which the source material came.
And that was the start of it. A terrible business altogether. Oh, it was all kept off the news, for the sake of the talks and the ceasefire. But them that were around that part of the country remember every bit. Wait now till you hear the rest
It is enjoyable to make the connections between Country and the source material, but an in depth knowledge of the Iliad is not necessary as Hughes has constructed a fascinating story of his own. The references do not feel shoehorned in, nor the plot twisted to fit. Country is a tale of war – like the Iliad – but this is not the noble, epic war of myth making, this is the harsh, vicious and bloody war of soldiers on the ground, fundamental, dark and hellish.
Here is a world where no one is what they seem, where friends cannot be trusted and where hidden forces shape events for their own political aims. If the idea of equating the noble, epic and central tale of Greece to the Irish Troubles seems unlikely or even jarring, rest assured that Hughes’ evocative and elemental portrayal of the nature of terrorist warfare strikes just the right note.
The mail thrust of the plot is put into a wider context, with striking descriptions of the ebb and flow of battle in this dirty war. Domestic scenes are authentic, presenting a day-to-day existence that rings true, although female characters barely feature. Women are here to be traded and used, by both sides and only Nellie comes in to her own as a character who sees a way out of the world she is in and takes it, despite the personal cost.
Significantly, the conflicts between the political powers – the Gods – as they strategise as much towards peace as they have done towards war, emphasise the idea that they arguing over the fate of the mere mortals in this unforgiving terrain.
Where Hughes really excels though is in the speech patterns of his characters. Hughes is an actor, working under the name Michael Colgan, and he has a keen ear for idiom and dialect, allowing the vernacular of the Northern Irish accent to mirror the hexameter of Homer’s poem. The speaking voices are rhythmic and forceful, ancient and modern, looking forward but also referring back.
You think you’re so smart, talking out of your hole about our target and our tactics, and proving only that you know sweet fuck all about nothing.
Country vividly conveys the timelessness of conflict and the basic tenets of human nature from which we can never escape. There is recognisable brutality here, from both sides, yet ultimately a sense of tragedy – the tragedy that comes about when war has no winners.
About the Author
Michael Hughes was born and raised in Keady, Northern Ireland, and now lives in London. He attended St Patrick’s Grammar School, Armagh, and read English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He trained in theatre at the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris, and has worked for many years as an actor, under the professional name Michael Colgan. He studied creative writing at Royal Holloway, and at London Metropolitan University, where he also taught. His first novel, The Countenance Divine, was published by John Murray in 2016. Country is his second novel.
Here is an interview with Michael Hughes in The Times
This is a fascinating interview on how Country came to be named Country
Read a review of Michael’s first novel The Countenance Divine in The Guardian
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