Prophet Song by Paul Lynch
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch
Prophet Song
Paul Lynch
  • Category:Dystopian Fiction, Alternative History
  • Date Read:13 December 2023
  • Year Published:2023
  • Pages:309
  • Prize:Booker Prize 2023
  • 5 stars

Everyone remembers ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca, but for me the truly stirring musical moment in the film is when ‘La Marseillaise’ is sung in defiance of the Nazi patrons who sing the German anthem ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’ in Rick’s bar. Even if you find nationalist sentiments suspect, it’s stirring stuff. Extras in the scene had real tears in their eyes because some of them had been victims of Nazi persecution. It’s a reality that informs the fiction. It’s worth remembering that the United States had entered the war in the December of the previous year. American filmmakers of the period had an opportunity to remind their audience what was at stake, and films produced during the war years often did that. Art usually speaks to the moment.

I was reminded of the scene as I read Paul Lynch’s novel, Prophet Song. There is a moment at a wedding when the groom begins to sing the national anthem of Ireland. Eilish, whose husband has been taken by the state, refuses to sing. Instead, she defiantly wraps a white scarf about her neck and bears looks of “unmasked contempt of the party” from the groom and those who stand by him. White clothing has become the symbol of resistance against the National Alliance Party (NAP) in Ireland, and this is Eilish’s moment of defiance.

Ireland, the setting for Prophet Song, has had its share of political unrest. The Troubles only officially came to an end after the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 and Sinn Féin’s formation of an elected government in 2007. Lynch’s novel is a dystopian nightmare, dramatizing the repressive rise of the NAP and the country’s slide into civil war, but it has nothing to do with the former political unrest in Ireland. Lynch has stated that he intended the novel to be an act of empathy in response to “The problem of Syria – the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference.” Of course, by setting the story in Ireland rather than in Syria, Lynch is giving his story a more universal relevance, by also questioning our attitudes to issues that have shaped the emergence of more radical right wing political thought over the last decade, often predicated upon the othering of vulnerable groups like political refugees. Here, Lynch imagines the problem occurring in a Western country – his own country – placing white middle-class Irish citizens into the same tenuous situation as those ‘others’ over there. Like Casablanca, Prophet Song is art speaking to the moment, even if our focus right now has shifted to the war in Ukraine (which had not begun as Lynch wrote the book) or once again to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, because, “the prophet sings not of the end of the world but of what has been done and what will be done . . . ” The novel supposes a depressing inevitability to human history.

Prophet Song won the Booker Prize in 2023 and was described by Edi Edugyan, the Chair of Judges, as “a triumph of emotional storytelling”; that it “pulls off feats of language which are stunning to witness”, and that the novel depicts “the reality of state violence and displacement.” For anyone trying to characterise Prophet Song from their own reading experience, it is helpful to understand that it covers similar issues as other novels you may have read. It is, after all, a dystopian vision of a near future or counter-reality, reminding us, if we needed reminding, how fragile our political and social institutions are. First is Anna Burns’s Milkman, winner of the Booker Prize in 2018, which is a thinly veiled representation of Ireland during the period of its Troubles in the 1970s. Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time might also help to characterise the novel, with its tale of repression in Stalinist Russia. Prophet Song is also reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with its depiction of social breakdown and its consequences. Or Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police in which the state disappears objects and enforces their forgetting. Other comparisons might be made to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, although her Booker Prize winning sequel, The Testaments, which deals with the problem of leaving a repressive state, is possibly a more apt comparison. And finally, the grandfather of dystopian fiction, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: Prophet Song shares elements of political misinformation and control depicted in Orwell’s novel, and elements of any one of these novels are evident in Lynch’s.

So, the premise of the novel is a fairly standard dystopian scenario. The repressive regime of the NAP feels under threat by an increasingly organised resistance. Meanwhile, anyone criticising the regime risks social alienation, the loss of their job and, at the extreme, arrest and disappearance. The population’s access to international media is cut. The question of whether to stay or attempt to flee across the border is on everyone’s lips. The situation becomes dire as Dublin becomes the epicentre of an armed conflict between NAP forces and the resistance. Destruction of suburbs and infrastructure ensues as well as the inevitable displacement of those caught in the crossfire.

The Garda National Services Protective Bureau, which in reality was formed in Ireland in 2015 for the purposes of addressing crimes of human trafficking, crimes against children, as well as domestic and sexual violence, has somehow devolved in Lynch’s novel into the GNSB – apparently they have lost the ‘protective’ function from their acronym – and has become the enforcement arm of the NAP. The NAP have come to power two years prior to the beginning of the narrative. One night two garda from the GNSB knock at Eilish Stack’s door. They are looking for her husband. Their reassurances that there is nothing to worry about are more menacing than comforting. Larry, Eilish’s husband, heads the teacher’s union in Ireland which is undertaking industrial action for better pay and conditions. Larry brushes aside Eilish’s concerns when she tells him of their visit. He naively believes in the law – of the right of citizens to form unions – but when his union stages a public protest, Larry, along with many others, is arrested and is simply not heard from again. Habeas Corpus has been suspended under national emergency legislation introduced by the state.

Put simply, beyond an empathetic moral tale, Ireland in Prophet Song represents the potential for political and social breakdown in our modern world. Lynch states, “It can be read as a warning. It can also be read as a simulation of events that are occurring somewhere in the world right now.” The novel seems eerily applicable to America, for instance, where up to a quarter of its citizens at the end of 2023 support the idea of violence to reset the political agenda, and where Donald Trump is currently the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican primary nomination. Simon, Eilish’s father, for his part, dismisses the government propaganda in newspapers as “the big lie”, reminding us of Trump’s efforts to impose his own version of reality across the political landscape. Simon identifies the fragility of public institutions and public discourse:

. . . tradition is nothing more than what everyone can agree on – the scientists, the teachers, the institutions. If you change ownership of the institutions then you can change ownership of the facts, you can alter the structure of belief, what is agreed upon, that is what they are doing, Eilish, it is really quite simple, the NAP is trying to change what you and I call reality, they want to muddy it like water, if you say one thing is another thing and you say it enough times, then it must be so . . .

The novel feels claustrophobic. There are no paragraphs or speech markers. Our perspective is limited to Eilish’s point of view, and Eilish knows little of what is happening. Like her, we wonder what is happening to her family and whether it would be better for them to stay or leave Ireland. The ideological basis of the NAP is not really clear. Information is scarce and not to be trusted. It truly is an Orwellian situation.

Lynch elevates his scenario with his beautiful prose and the psychological reality of his characters. Edugyan’s assessment that the novel “pulls off feats of language” alludes to an important aspect: the novel is not merely well written, but its prose captures a dream-like state in which narrative consciousness exists in a kind of vague delineation between the State and the private, between waking and dreaming, life and death, light and dark. When Eileen first looks into her garden at night she sees a place of restorative power where she might, “lie with the fallen leaves and let the night pass over, to wake then with the dawn and rise renewed with the morning come.” But after the visit of the two garda, the night and her garden have been transformed in her mind: “The darkening garden not to be wished upon now, for something of that darkness has come into the house.” But nature is neither intrinsically good nor bad. The cherry trees of Eilish’s garden “do not resist the dark but accept the dark in whisper.” The worm, a symbol used by Bailey, Eilish’s second son, as a representation of change outside their agency, “is a fact . . . it doesn’t care whether we like it or not.” Psychologically, one may tie one’s identity to the state and society, but ultimately there is no bond between what is ‘natural’ and the socio-political self; that what is right is not necessarily natural or given. “You speak about this word rights as though you understand the word rights,” Inspector John Stamp tells Eilish, “show me what rights were born with man, show me what tablet they are written on, where nature has decreed it so.” The idea of rights engendered in a revolutionary document like The Bill of Rights or The United Nation’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights are revealed as mere constructs, subject to the political expedience of the State.

Similarly, dreams represent both the private world and the political. Characters are often asleep or waking from sleep. Their dreams are described and sometimes they are confused with waking moments. It lends a surreal atmosphere to the seeming unreality of the collapse of Irish society. The dream state is likened to being underwater, from which the sleeper emerges “breathless seeking upward for air”. Or dreams permeate the waking day: Eilish dreams of Larry, her missing husband, and imagines him next to herself in moments of “wakeful sleep”; turning to him for comfort in moments of stress.

Yet the dementia suffered by Eilish’s father, Simon, is also likened to a dream state. When he confuses periods in his past when his wife was still alive with his present, Eilish reflects that it is as though he has “woken inside a dream”. But Simon’s dementia represents something of the political realities of the country, itself, beyond private experience. When we see Simon, we see the country in microcosm; wracked by doubt and paranoia as it loses its collective understanding, its identity and unity. Eileen states of her father,

. . . he’s in decline and has no awareness of his illness, sometimes it seems he suspects something is wrong but cannot see his own mind so he turns that suspicion outward, if he’s not false then it is the world that is false, there is always someone else to blame.

All this creates an atmosphere of doubt and fear, the template for which, of course, is familiar. But it is the philosophical questions raised by the narrative that sets the novel apart. Edugyan may characterise Lynch’s writing as “emotional storytelling”, but this limits its scope, leaving us only a visceral rather than cerebral response to the book.

I think the novel extends its philosophical focus beyond the representation of what might possibly happen: beyond what we expect of a cautionary tale. For instance, when Tolstoy wrote War and Peace his purpose was to write a great story based on his account of the war with Napoleon. But his epilogue extends beyond the limits of narrative, into essay. His intention is to undermine the historical reputation of Napoleon as a great leader and military genius. On the matter of military brilliance, Tolstoy attributes much of Napoleon’s success to chance, and argues that the confusion and vagaries of 19th century warfare placed the credit of victory beyond the ownership of any one individual: that Napoleon was merely a man who occupied the seat when historical imperatives shifted on a tectonic scale. The first ideation of history – that Napoleon was a military genius – imbues him with a godlike power to see within the box of history from above and outside it: but Tolstoy places Napoleon inside the box, travelling within history and subject to its currents, if somewhat more elevated than his peers.

And this is where Lynch’s own story is elevated from the warmth of emotion with which it has been credited. A powerful warning: yes. A realistic representation: certainly. And a personal story of the impact that political and military conflict has on the lives of ordinary people. But Lynch’s narrative achieves more: it raises the reader outside that historical box, if just for a moment, and makes us see events from a different perspective.

To illustrate my thinking, as I read Prophet Song I remembered Lynch’s interview on the Booker website in which he cites W.H.Auden – “poetry makes nothing happen”, which I thought was an interesting tell – his interest in Auden. Parts of the novel reminded me of Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’:

  • How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
  • For the miraculous birth, there always must be
  • Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
  • On a pond at the edge of the wood

[Click here to view the whole poem and to view the painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel. If you are interested in the painting, it's history, it's likely authenticity, interpretation and other versions, click here to view the webpage from Journal of Art in Society]

The import of any great event is not necessarily seen and understood when it happens. While an event may acquire significance in the course of time, it or its iterations are necessarily localised, and our awareness and understanding of them initially limited.

Lynch’s representation of Eilish’s plight is highly emotional, but Auden’s insight is akin to Lynch’s assessment of personal disaster on the scale of history: “. . . that the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event”.

It is a peculiar position to adopt in a narrative that has so thoroughly immersed its readers in the plight of its characters and the catastrophic events of this fictitious political crisis. Suddenly, it seems, we are told that on the scale of things, this disaster is of relatively little importance in the grand scheme of history; that, really, it doesn’t matter in the long game. Eilish and her family are merely puppets of history which plays out in endless cycles beyond their understanding or control. But if Lynch’s thesis is correct, then the NAP and any movement like it are no more in control of the grand arc of history than Napoleon.

We may be willing to adopt this philosophy from an intellectual position, but it is much harder to maintain from an emotional perspective. This is Ireland, not somewhere else, and as readers we are now invested in the story of Eilish and her children. Lynch’s argument works intellectually, but it evokes an emotional reaction, as well: that we are also travelling inside history’s box; that the Western-centric narrative that problematizes the ‘other’ and assumes a position above the fray is illusory. Molly, Eilish’s daughter, tells her brother, “if you want to give war its proper name, call it entertainment, we are now TV for the rest of the world.” If we have read this novel with any degree of fidelity to its subject we should be repelled by Molly’s insight. And if that is the case, it also follows that nameless refugees from distant countries who fill our screens must also touch our hearts. This problematizes the issue of Syria and other conflicts like it.

It’s a position that kicks the supports from Western-centric view of the world which assumes its own agency and power. Prophet Song is not original in its subject matter, but it is an honest attempt to come to terms with Western attitudes to ‘others’ – those shaped by, rather than shaping history – which has abetted (still abets) – attitudes which have shifted towards political extremes.

I watched this short interview with Paul Lynch shorlty after completing my review. It touches on some of the issues raised in the review.
Paul Lynch wins the Booker Prize
In this picture Lynch holds up the Booker Prize trophy. The trophy was designed by book illustrator Jan Pieńkowski for the first Booker Prize ceremony in 1969. It was awarded to author P.H. Newby that year, for his novel Something to Answer for. Bernice Rubens received a trophy the next year for her novel The Elected Member , but after that the trophies were reduced in size in a design by artist Patricia Turner and handed out for a few years until the trophies were replaced by a leather bound edition of the winner’s novel.
The trophy was reintroduced in 2022 and in 2023 there was a competition to name it. The winning submission was ‘Iris’.
The Ruins of Aleppo, Syria
“I used to work as a city planner, you know, there’s a finite number of roads and buildings in this city, drop enough ordinance and after a time you’ll have put a hole in every road, you’ll have struck at every block of flats, every shop and house, then you keep going night and day, you keep dropping more and more until you’ve smashed every structure into the ground and you keep going until you turn the brickwork into dust and there’s nothing left but the people who refuse to leave.”
Prophet Song, Paul Lynch, page 228
Syrian Refugees
Paul Lynch has stated that his novel is not really Dystopian since it is a realistic representation of events happening in the world and is therefore not speculative. Yet there is an element of speculation in the novel, since it implicitly asks the question, would we care more if what happened in Syria was actually happening in Europe?
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You can read more about this painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel by clicking here