Monday, April 20, 2015

The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan, I only just discovered, has been nominated for a number of prestigious awards, including the Booker Prize (1999), the Man Booker Prize (2006) and was voted one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists for 2003. He is editor-at-large for the London Review of Books. In September of 2014, O’Hagan interviewed Karl Ove Knausgård for the London Review of Books at St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury. At that time, Books 1-3 of Knausgård's six-volume novel/memoir, Min Kamp (My Struggle), had been translated into English.

O’Hagan elicited something more from Knausgård than earlier interviewers had: his silence as an interlocutor was voracious. He raised questions citing Nietzsche, Camus, Saul Bellow, Emile Zola, Ibsen. He elevated the level of discourse, provoking revelatory statements from Knausgård about living an "authentic life," and the "lies" that we must tell in order to live with others. The question "Do individuals own their own life story?" is one question which O’Hagan posed to Knausgård and is also a central question of The Illuminations, O’Hagan’s fifth novel.

Luke Campbell, the grandson of Anne, finds himself rooting about in his grandmother’s history in an attempt to clarify his own life. Recently discharged from the 1st Royal Western Fusiliers serving in Afghanistan, Luke is suffering a crisis of conscience from events that took place before his departure from the war zone. Looking after the affairs of his aging grandmother began a journey of discovery for Luke, revealing long-held secrets and answering the question, "whose story is it?"

The title, The Illuminations, refers most directly to the city of Blackpool and the festival of lights it sponsors each year in September, streamers of bulbs illuminating the seaside promenade until the wee hours. But the title also refers to a young man viewing a firefight in Afghanistan, Anne emerging intermittently from the dark clouds of dementia, and Luke’s mother Alice experiencing flashes of insight: "It’s the hallucinations, as I call them…My mother always behaved as if the truth was the biggest thing. The photographs she took when she was young were all about that." Alice’s mother Anne, a once-famous documentary photographer, had stopped taking photographs long ago and no one knew why.

Luke Campbell had joined the Fusiliers to "look for his father" who had died patrolling Belfast during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Sean Campbell had been in the Western Fusiliers, the same regiment that Luke joined. Luke knew his father had died but he did not know the story of his grandfather who, it was said, had flown reconnaissance planes in WWII. Without consciously setting out to uncover the whole story, Luke offers himself as a means by which Anne could return to Blackpool and her past.

Luke is close with Anne, and though his grandmother "always made too much of the men" in her life, she "spoke [to him] as a person not only ready to invest in you but ready to bear the costs to the end." On the other hand, Luke's mother Alice was always taken up with practicalities and resentments for being "sacrificed" growing up. "I didn’t ever think it would be so hard. So hard to face it," Alice tells her doctor. "I didn’t get to ask about my father or get a grip on the past...I would love to spend half an hour with the woman who made those pictures." Alice faces the truth with no filters, and feels the cut.

O’Hagan is a spokesperson for The Scottish Trust and he takes seriously the responsibility for following in the footsteps of great literary figures: "some of what we understand to be literary values come from Scotland in the first place." O’Hagan points to Rudyard Kipling at least twice in this novel and the poem "If" almost charts Luke’s personal journey to manhood. Kim, Kipling’s book about the great power struggles in an India that included parts of Afghanistan, sits comfortably in parallel with a young soldier’s disillusionment: the military affair in which Luke was involved in Afghanistan illustrated for him the ways that men and nations can be crushed under the weight of their experiences.

This novel is not the seamless piece one associates with "great novels," but it is packed with the insights of a work three times its length. One might even say that the work is at the service of big ideas. O’Hagan, like his central character Luke, is "a bit of a thinker," and strives to touch on important themes that we face today in the world. I admit to wanting to look at whatever O’Hagan has written "and test it all against reality."

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