The Moroccan port city of Tangier nowadays conjures images of refugees and migrants preparing to cross the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa’s northernmost country, Morocco, to mainland Europe at Spain. A common entry point into the ‘West’, Spain’s southern coast is, in these images and narratives, a kind of limit point for ‘civilisation’. It would hardly be a surprise, then, to see these images of migration and refuge into ‘civilised’ Europe represented in contemporary literature. You might expect a book entitled Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (Canongate, 2019) to be that book.
You would be wrong.
Night Boat surprises. Unlike the delicately constructed anti-narrative of Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea (Doubleday, 2018), in which a doctor attempts to escape war-torn Syria with his wife and daughter before arriving in Ireland, Barry‘s story tells of a series of escapes from Ireland and, thereafter, from Spain’s southern limit town of Algeciras. Rather than fleeing Tangier, Night Boat tells stories of people travelling to Tangier.
One set of stories concerns the Beckettian Maurice (‘Moss’) and Charlie, two friends with a chequered history—both in terms of their illegal behaviour, their shared lover, and the way they treat one another. The novel opens with a punctuation-less dialogue between the two as they wait at the Algeciras ferry terminal, waiting for the night boat from Tangier. In their demotic Cork Irish accents, Moss and Charlie accost strangers as they walk past, pressing them for knowledge of Moss’s daughter, Dilly.
With chapters alternating between the present at Algeciras, and the past history of the two men, their shared love, business plans and fallings out, this isn’t a novel of memory, per se. Until the final chapters it refuses the nostalgic mood, with Moss and Charlie avoiding discussion of the past. Nonetheless, the past is given to us as readers, both as a way to decode the present tensions and friendships, and as a way of showing how Moss and Charlie are reluctant to remember.
It is a comical novel, and draws on Beckett’s tramps—particularly Estragon and Vladimir from Waiting for Godot (1953)—when Moss and Charlie are waiting for Dilly. Their wait is held in tension, particularly because of the clear evocation of Beckett’s anti-heroes who waited, twice over, for Godot to arrive. Barry doubles down on that length of wait, as Moss and Charlie are shown to be waiting in at least five chapters. Their conversations are quick-paced if slow-witted, and the lack of punctuation also allows Barry to bend other syntactical rules to fashion a poetic intensity:
[…] she walked out into the last pale dark of the night
along a jag of the bay,
by the grey musical sea,
in the place beyond Berehaven.Kevin Barry, Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate, 2019), p. 205
Tonally, Night Boat swings between tragicomedy and elegy, and the way in which the focus keeps returning to Moss and Charlie at the terminal, I was never quite sure as a reader which mood would end the novel. This uncertainty kept me interested.
Part of the reason that I think it surprises is because of the current interest in migrant narratives, particularly from the Middle East. Irish critics such as Declan Kiberd (After Ireland, 2017) and Bryan Fanning (Irish Adventures in Nation Building, 2016) have already predicted the rise of migrant narratives. We need only look at the hugely successful Once (dir. John Carney, 2007) to see how migrant stories can resonate in modern Ireland—but instead of the EU influx, now is the time of migrations from the Middle East and from the African continent. As already mentioned, Ryan’s From a Low Quiet Sea does draw on those stories, and shows how migrant stories can (quite literally) be integrated into the narratives of the ‘native’ Irish.
Night Boat refuses that pattern, instead turning the nativist introspection outwards, and confronts the possibility of finding your own identity—be it Irish, lover, rebel—in the Orient. In this, Night Boat also plays with and goes beyond ideas inaugurated in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), in which the philosopher demonstrated how Western, ‘civilised’ identity often emerged in opposition to a falsely-constructed depiction of the orient as backwards. In Night Boat, by contrast, characters find their identity in other cultures (e.g. Dilly’s dreadlocks) and in other locales (e.g. Moss in Spain and Morocco). Their rejection of a mainstream Irish-ness as Other is suggestive.
The sea is the abiding symbol of Night Boat. The Atlantic coast off Cork is an almost-infinite threshold which the characters cannot breach, whilst across the Irish Sea and the English Channel lies the access door to the characters’ future. The Strait of Gilbratar offers the last limit, beyond which is tomorrow. However, as Moss makes clear in the book’s opening line, this tomorrow may not be available to all-comers:
Would you say there’s any end in sight, Charlie?Kevin Barry, Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate, 2019), p. 1
Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangiers is available in hardback from Canongate, RRP £14.99
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea is available in paperback from Black Swan Ireland, RRP £8.99