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The Despair of a Historian, Surely : THE TENANTS OF TIME by Thomas Flanagan (E. P. Dutton/A William Abrahams Book : $21.95; 820 pp.)

February 14, 1988|Digby Diehl | Diehl is the president of the Los Angeles Center of P.E.N., International

Nine years ago, Thomas Flanagan's first novel, "The Year of the French" was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award and generally praised as an exemplary historical novel. Naturally, readers approach this new novel with heightened expectations. Will Flanagan be able to bring Irish history alive with energy and immediacy again? Can he sustain the charm and lilt of Irish voices throughout a long narrative? Will he continue experimenting successfully with a story told from many divided points of view? Can he evoke vividly the fascinating details of life in another era? Can he do it again?

The answer is affirmative: He not only does it, he overdoes it! "The Tenants of Time" is a masterful historical novel, a rich tapestry of Irish life in the 19th Century, and it is also a novel about the processes of history. It is overflowing with more than 100 Irish characters--drinking and talking, drinking and plotting, drinking and fighting, drinking and making love, drinking and writing history. (Flanagan feels self-conscious enough about his gigantic cast to provide a guide to the names at the end of this book.)

As a confident historian/novelist with a purpose, Flanagan whips us backward and forward through three decades of complicated events as seen by more than a half dozen narrators. The effect is a marvelous literary roller-coaster ride that is full of thrills and surprises at first but leaves the reader a bit dazed and overwhelmed by the end. Most annoying, however, is that "The Tenants of Time" is overwritten--beautifully overwritten to be sure--but also bulky, talky and repetitive to a degree that burdens the story.

The novel begins in 1904 as a young historian named Patrick Prentiss arrives in the small Irish town of Kilpeder to research the battle of Clonbrony Wood, which was part of the ill-fated Irish Rising of 1867. Prentiss is there to interview Hugh MacMahon, formerly the village schoolmaster and one of the local leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Fenians, as they were known, were led by Ned Nolan, a Kilpeder boy returned from America after three years in the Union army. Nolan and MacMahon, together with Robert Delaney, a shopkeeper's assistant, and Vincent Tully, the dilettante son of the town's richest citizen, organized an attack on the barracks of the Irish Constabulary. The battle--really more of a skirmish as Flanagan deflates the mythology of it--lasted only a few hours and was easily won by the arriving British cavalry.

Flanagan deals with Clonbrony Wood in the first 200 pages of this novel and focuses for the remainder on how the event changed and intertwined the lives of the four veterans. As "tenants of time," the four develop different perspectives on their shared experience. He describes the rise (and dramatic fall) of Charles Stewart Parnell, the development of the Land League, and the terrible roots of anger, dissension and betrayal from which the contemporary conflict in Ireland has grown.

Despite much earnest digging, interviewing and library research, Prentiss, the young historian, never gets the "real" story, the full history of the battle of Clonbrony Wood and its aftermath. Flanagan demonstrates rather pointedly that history is a combination of legend, anecdote, newspaper stories, poetry, official records, memory and hearsay. Implicitly, Flanagan is suggesting that only a novelist can write the true history of an event, because only a novelist can look into the hearts of the characters who experienced it.

The "real" story, according to Flanagan, definitely concerns the heart. It involves a love affair between Parnell supporter Robert Delaney and the wife of the Earl of Ardmoor. (The Earl of Ardmoor owns the land on which the town of Kilpeder stands, and the townspeople are his tenants. Metaphors, anyone?) This love affair parallels the disastrous affair between Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, just as an informer in the Clonbrony Wood inner circle parallels the numerous Irish informers within the ranks of the Fenians.

But Flanagan pulls off this fake history filled with representative figures. He pulls it off brilliantly because he places the story in a historical setting boiling with passion and significance.

What he does not pull off are lengthy sections of dialogue chock full of wordy historical exposition and maddening, unmercifully fulsome descriptions of settings. He is a fine scholar but often too anxious to show off his knowledge. By treating us to excesses of his own research, Flanagan often distances us from the romance of the tale, and sometimes keeps us from empathizing with these men "ensnared in history."

Still, the powerful delights of this book far outweigh its difficulties. Flanagan has made a moment in history come alive for us with vividness that is inspiring. You cannot read this novel without feeling the heart-wrenching passions of the continuing Irish conflict and also feeling sad, powerless doubts about its resolution.

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