Classic Novellas Week: Proxopera by Benedict Kiely #NovNov22

First published in 1977, at the height of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ , Benedict Kiely’s Proxopera was hailed as a “nearly flawless as a piece of literature” by Anthony Burgess. It is a beautifully rendered novella, perfectly encapsulating the pain and suffering inflicted on innocent people and the landscape of Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles.

Proxopera opens as the Binchey family are returning home following a holiday in Donegal. As Granda Binchey, his son and daughter-in-law and their two children pull into their driveway, they are met by a group of masked armed men from the IRA and are taken inside to find their housekeeper tied up in the kitchen. The men demand that Granda Binchey drive a bomb into his town the next morning while the rest of his family are held hostage.  This bomb is in retaliation for the murder of a publican, whose body was pulled from the local lake a few weeks previously.

That lake would never be the same again…

The murmur of voices still comes across the water from the men searching and searching in a bay among the reeds, in a bay that had been the best place of all for perch on those long-lost sunny days.

As Binchey drives the car, containing a bomb inside a creamery can into the town the following morning, he reflects on his life, his history and the history of his town until he makes a decision that could risk everything.

Proxopera is a compelling novella, managing to be both taut and poetic, thrilling and meditative. Its undeniable power comes from Kiely’s ability to explore this incident within the span of a life and a country’s history. Ostensibly set over two days, the novella spans a lifetime, as Binchy remembers his childhood and his early youth in a town and a home that has defined him.

The idea of home is at the heart of Proxopera, indeed the novella is a hymn to home and its values and deals with the subsequent violation of those values through violence. Binchey loves his house, having dreamt of living in it when he was a boy and he loves the town and the people in it. To be asked to bring death to this place is to be asked to rewrite its history, to mark its landscape with memories wrought from death rather than from life.

The world is in wreckage and these madmen would force me to extend that wreckage to my town below, half-asleep in the valley, my town, asleep like a loved woman on a morning pillow, my town, my town, my town…

Granda Binchey was a history teacher and the novella is steeped in references to a shared Irish culture of music, ballads, language and myths. Binchey sees the actions of these men as redefining their very sense of place and he wants to play no part in it. Binchey recognises two of the three republicans through their balaclavas (one by his voice and one by his feet), allowing Kiely to underline the point that the Troubles did not pit communities against one another but rather cleaved apart allegiances that already existed.

The perpetuation of violence is also well depicted, with Kiely stressing the continuum that will be fed through this event. The bomb that Binchey is being asked to deliver will not bring retribution for the body in the lake, it will only perpetuate further violence.

And on the cause must go, through joy or weal or woe, till we make Ireland a nation free and grand. Not even the Mafia thought of the proxy bomb, operation proxy, proxopera for the gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering their neighbours.

The plot of Proxopera is similar to Brian Moore’s Booker-shortlisted novel Lies of Silence, but they are two very different books, with Kiely exploring the same philosophical questions but in a more lyrical, dream-like manner.

Proxopera is a moving critique of violence and the havoc it can wreck on a place and a time, changing a beloved landscape forever by layering horror on top of beauty, creating new references and new histories which will overshadow the old. For such a slim book, it is one of the most affecting depictions of the affect of the ‘Troubles’ on ordinary people who were just trying to live their lives in peace.

Northern Exposure Novellas in November

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

13 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Your summary is a timely reminder of how faulty thinking begets more faulty thinking as well as endless physical and mental pain, whatever the cause – be it political, racial, religious, or social in origin. Why anyone would want to resurrect or perpetuate such vicious circles of vendetta and recrimination is beyond me. This sounds to be a powerful but necessary piece of writing.


    • You’ve captured it perfectly Chris and it is the awful history of my country that the cycle was allowed to continue. I also really enjoyed this one for the exploration of how atrocities embed themselves in the very landscape – scarring it forever.

      Liked by 1 person

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