If the English are branded on their tongues, then people in Northern Ireland are defined less by how they speak than by what they say. Even the statelet’s name is a source of friction. Irish republicans (who are usually Catholic) speak of the “North of Ireland” or the “Six Counties” to signal that they do not recognize the legitimacy of British rule over their homeland. Unionists and loyalists (who are usually Protestant) prefer “Ulster,” thereby avoiding any mention of “Ireland.”
A central sticking point in that linguistic quarrel is the city of Derry, which unionists call “Londonderry,” leading some local wags to dub it “Stroke City.” Throughout the multi-sided ethno-nationalist conflict euphemistically known as the Troubles, which lasted from the late 60s to the late 90s, using the wrong name in the wrong company risked disaster.
Growing up in Derry during the 80s and 90s, Darran Anderson was forced to learn that lesson each time he encountered one of the many checkpoints dotted around the city. Being stopped by the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary could turn into what the 39-year-old author calls an “attempt at protracted humiliation” in his eclectic new memoir, which filters his hometown’s conflict-ridden history through the experiences of his working-class Catholic family across three generations. “My father’s name, being confrontationally Irish, was a problem,” says Anderson of one such checkpoint clash. “The fact that he answered ‘Derry,’ and not ‘Londonderry,’ to their second question was a problem.”
Despite serving as grim markers of identity, names often end up seeming deceptive in Inventory. The first name of the author’s father, which is never given, might be unmistakably Catholic. But the family surname—like that of the erstwhile I.R.A. commander Gerry Adams—sounds more Scottish than Irish and evokes distant Protestant origins. When Anderson escapes from another checkpoint, manned by loyalist terrorists, he is struck by the “Protestant name” of the taxi driver who speeds him to safety. He also puzzles over the lack of oak trees in Derry, which is an Anglicization of the Irish word for “oak grove.”
These semiotic explorations yield a nuanced portrait of a city where everyone seems at once obsessed by the past and yet prone to historical amnesia. Each December, loyalists burn effigies of the army officer Robert Lundy, who is remembered as having betrayed their cause during the Siege of Derry, in 1689, when Catholic Jacobite forces failed to subdue the city’s Protestant defenders. But it is far from clear that Lundy was a traitor. “Every faith needs a Judas,” as Anderson notes. Earlier in Inventory, he recalls that the I.R.A. lost support among Catholics during the Troubles after committing a particularly heinous atrocity. But the “brutal, clarity-inducing shock of the violence” soon faded once loyalist terrorists carried out an attack of their own.
“My father’s name, being confrontationally Irish, was a problem.”
As he delves into his family’s past, Anderson encounters a similar pattern of fluctuating memory and evasion. At first, his knowledge of his paternal grandfather is mostly limited to a photograph of him in uniform that stirs images of his heroically fighting across Europe during the Second World War. But, aided by official records and news reports, Anderson pieces together the story of how his grandfather became a serial deserter before drunkenly falling into the River Foyle and drowning on the day John F. Kennedy was shot. His widow then drowned in the same place 20 years later. No one seems to know whether it was an accident or a suicide. On his mother’s side, too, there is a dismal history of premature death and suicide as well as physical abuse inflicted by her father, a former sea smuggler and maundering raconteur.
Most sinuous of all is the story of Anderson’s father, who appears for most of Inventory as gentle, bookish, and unaffected by the sectarian passions around him. He and Anderson’s mother were “hippies who’d gone off track” and lived in a house without central heating that nonetheless possessed an ornately decorated Japanese room. And yet the author eventually learns about how his father had got caught up in the Troubles, later altering the wording of a tattoo on his arm to conceal that murky past. Here again the true significance of a name proves to be eternally volatile.
Anderson’s title, which alludes to the work of experimental French writer Georges Perec, suggests a desire to make sense of his life and Derry’s history by categorizing and defining the people, places, and things he encounters. But, like Perec’s elliptical evocations of his parents, who died in the Second World War, Inventory ultimately signals the impossibility of ever getting the story straight. That preoccupation with doubt and ambiguity seems like a rebuke to the dogmatic certainties that continue to animate many of Anderson’s countrymen. His chiseled, paratactic sentences, which are arranged in short, loosely connected chapters, similarly make an implicit plea for subtle parsing and interpretation rather than literal-mindedness. In Inventory, coming to terms with the past has as much to do with imagination as it does with figuring out the facts.
Max McGuinness teaches French at the University of Limerick