Earlier this month I finished reading Up in the Hills by Lord Dusany, a book first published in 1937 and republished (and sent to me) by Paul Dry Books. Dusany is the pen name of Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, a prolific Irish writer who is known as an influencer of J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and Ursula Le Guin.
Set in 1922 Ireland, shortly after the Great War and after the Ireland's independence from Great Britain (except Northern Ireland), Lord Dusany's satire begins with a contingent of black archealogists who arrive from the newly indpendent African country of Liberissima to dig up remains from the bogs (a reversal of Europeans digging around in Africa). This leads to unrest in the small village of Cronague and eventually a “war” between a band of young men led by the young Mickey Connor and the honorable Patsy Heffernan, a former guerilla who fought for Irish independence. It's not really a war, but a series of harmless skirmishes, which satirizes war – or our need for war – even relatively pleasant ones. Though inexperienced, Mickey is clever and willing to seek counsel from his wise Grandfather Mickey. Moreover Mickey is popular among his troops because he puts their well being above his own.
The prose has a lyrical quality in the descriptions of the bucolic Irish countryside and the hills around mixed in with understated humor. In this passage, Mickey worries about his men during their first night on bivouac:
“Transport lines over there,” said Mickey pointing, and the donkey (the army's transport) was tied to a tree by Jimmy Mullins a little way off from where the rest were spreading their blankets and softening the hardness of the ground with bunches of bracken. Later they found it better to wrap their blankets round them standing up, and then to lie down; but this was their first night in the hills. At first the wind running cold through the trees and fanning their faces was joy to them, a kind of welcome from the woods and the night to those who hitherto had only known sleep in houses; but soon there came the chill against which the first inventor of house had built his walls. Young Mickey noted that one blanket was not nearly enough. And he watched the sky anxiously. If it rained on the first night, how many would remain with him? He began to feel the anxiety that statesman know when first they fear the defection of an ally. A miniature anxiety, my reader may think. No, it troubled him with all the force with which anxiety can trouble youth, though he showed it no more than a statesman would show it, if every he felt such anxiety. This army of his was everything to him: would it melt away?
While the armies are up in the hills, a secondary plot line develops with the African chief Umbololulu who arrives with archealogists. The townspeople of Cronague try to “civilize” Umbololulu, who speaks no English, and convert him to Catholicism. Lord Dusany tells this story, in his understated satirical way as well, and the when the two plot lines cross it makes for a great ending.
Included in the book is five page Afterword by Micheal Grenke, a professor from St. John's College who gives the book some historical perspective. When I was floundering in the middle of the book (it's not the pace and writing style I am used to), I skipped to the end. Grenke's brief analysis was most helpful in my understanding the nuances of Lord Dusany's work and gave me the reading strength to finish what I had started.