Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Angels and devils

Irish tale weaves together religion, economy... and the diabolical

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The epigraph of The Devil I Know is the opening passage of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, a formidable chunk of Irish literature.

But reader, do not fear. What follows is not nearly so daunting.

Claire Kilroy's accessible and intriguing literary novel, her fourth, is a brisk, imaginative tale that dissects the boom-and-bust history of the last decade in her native Ireland, a corner of the world that has long successfully exported its stories and its characters.

But there is a diabolical influence here, glimpsed increasingly clearly as the story rushes along.

This is not the Ireland of Martin Sixsmith's Philomena, the recent hit movie in which the malevolent influence of the Roman Catholic Church extends even into the White House. Nor is it the Ireland of the novels of John Banville and his alter ego Benjamin Black, set under low-hanging psychic and religious gloom.

Rather, The Devil I Know portrays the church and history itself in full retreat, overwhelmed by the economic triumphalism of the Celtic Tiger, the Irish building boom fuelled in the early 21st century by hundreds of millions of borrowed euros. The money lenders have banished religious influence from the temple.

Of course that greed-fuelled international spree was unsupportable, and in fact it sparked the near-collapse of international financial systems in 2008.

This novel takes the form of testimony by Tristram Amory St. Lawrence, the 13th Earl of Howth -- his name and title echoing the passage from Finnegans Wake.

Tristram, as he is usually referred to, is appearing before an entity known only as the Commission, which is apparently investigating the economic calamity. These hearings take place in 2016, but most of the story rolls out in extended flashbacks from 2006 to 2008.

Like millions before him, our hero left Ireland to make his fortune elsewhere, but otherwise he is an oddball: a loner, an interpreter ("I do all the major European languages") who has erased himself in his work and his membership in Alcoholics Anonymous.

"One must hollow oneself out. One must make of oneself the perfect conduit. This is a trick I have mastered... They said my gift was uncanny."

Forced by an in-flight emergency to revisit Dublin, Tristram encounters friends and family who believe him dead. Indeed, a hospital has recorded his death, although not his resurrection -- an early hint that there are more things in this story than can easily be explained.

Tristram begins to receive new instructions from the shadowy M. Deauville, the consultant who has enabled his career. They communicate only by phone.

These tasks launch him as a financial manipulator, building the unstable footings of the short-lived economic miracle.

Guided by M. Deauville, Tristram quickly advances to handling hundreds of millions of euros in projects throughout Ireland and Britain, then into Asia. He participates in repeated bribery of a cabinet minister, and his new business friends exert growing pressure on him to resume drinking.

Occasionally, he wonders how all this could be natural. Then, when the gigantic financial fiction collapses, he must confront the real perpetrator.

Now, what does the Bible say about the love of money being the root of all evil?


Duncan McMonagle holds Canadian and Irish citizenship. He has met the devil from time to time, although never at Red River College, where he teaches journalism.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 G6


Updated on Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 8:23 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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