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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Dirty Dust

Máirtín Ó Cadhain

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To purchase The Dirty Dust

Title: The Dirty Dust
Author: Máirtín Ó Cadhain
Genre: Novel
Written: 1949 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 316 pages
Original in: Irish
Availability: The Dirty Dust - US
The Dirty Dust - UK
Cré na Cille - UK
The Dirty Dust - Canada
The Dirty Dust - India
  • Irish title: Cré na Cille
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Alan Titley
  • Filmed as Graveyard Clay (2007), directed by Robert Quinn

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a lively, polyphonic work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 10/4/2015 Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
The Guardian . 15/4/2015 Kevin Barry
The Independent . 19/3/2015 Max Liu
Irish Times . 4/4/2015 Colm Tóibín
Sunday Times . 22/3/2015 Adam Lively
The Washington Post . 8/4/2015 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "(M)ainly his novel is difficult because of its experimental form. Modernism is hard in any language. Cré na Cille confounds expectations of fiction, dispensing with both traditional authorial omniscience and Joycean stream of consciousness, both of which allow us access to characters’ inner thoughts -- fiction’s trump card. (...) On the whole, the translation is faithful but his method raises questions. Certain aesthetic choices will not please everyone. (...) Titley (...) has made a difficult work readable and accessible in more ways than one." - Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Financial Times

  • "(I)t’s the insane babble of the dead that holds the true poetry, and Ó Cadhain’s great accomplishment, it seems to me, was to achieve a perfect synthesis of style and subject." - Kevin Barry, The Guardian

  • "(G)ossip and backbiting is the lifeblood of this novel, which consists almost entirely of dialogue. (...) (W)hile there's little plot, it bristles with black comedy" - Max Liu, The Independent

  • "The book depends on its own rhythmic energy; anyone seeking plot or character development should abandon hope. Slowly, as you read, you realise you have been lured into a fictional universe made up of voices and interruptions, much fragmented talk, non-sequiturs, and then sudden bursts of sheer poetic clarity in which a phrase or a half-sentence takes on a sonorous resonance and has a dark suggestive power. (...) The novel, in Titley’s translation, has a strange mesmeric force." - Colm Tóibín, Irish Times

  • "But this isn’t a novel one reads for the plot, so to speak. It’s all about the language." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Dirty Dust is a different kind of underground-tale: it is set entirely in 'The Graveyard' and its characters are all dead and buried. Technically lifeless, the deceased nevertheless retain considerable consciousness -- as well as the ability to communicate amongst themselves. As Caitriona Paudeen, the newest arrival in the graveyard when the novel opens and more or less the central character, wonders when she finds herself down under:

Am I alive or dead ? Are the people here alive or dead ? They are all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they were above the ground ! I thought that when I died that I could rest in peace, that I wouldn't have to work, or worry about the hopuse, or the weather, that I would be able to relax ... But why all this racket in the dirty dust ?
       Of course, Caitriona soon realizes what's clear to many of the others assembled here:
I'm not a blabbermouth. Anything that's my own business, anything that I saw or heard, I took it into the clay with me. But there's no harm talking about it now when we are gone the way of all flesh ...
       Old rivalries and arguments flourish here eternally, as everyone has all the time in the world to make their case and claim again. Whether about how Peter the Publican and his daughter handily ripped off some of their clientele, that one pound that Caitriona borrowed from neighbor Kitty but never got back, or the refusal to believe that Galway could have lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland football final in 1941 ("But you were dead. And I was looking at the match" one dead man tells the other, but the other refuses to believe it), the debates, complaints, and recriminations continue endlessly.
       Initially, Caitriona's main concerns are to determine just how fine her funeral was -- the novel opens with her wondering whether she's in: "the Pound grave, or the Fifteen Shilling grave" (or whether, god forbid, she was plonked in the Ten Shilling plot) -- and how good a cross they'll raise on her grave. Eagerly she asks each new arrival about her own funeral -- after the initial disappointment of finding that the latest arrival is, yet again, not her daughter-in-law, who she is rather overeagerly expecting to join her much sooner, rather than later.
       Not everyone can oblige Caitriona, as Ó Cadhain fills up the graveyard with a colorful cast of characters who remain lifelike in their own quirks and interests. There are some efforts at getting things organized too, though not everyone is on board:
     -- All that vile vituperation will only vulgarize your mind. I will have to establish a relationship with you. I am the cultural relations officer for the cemetery. I will give you some lectures on "The Art of Living."
     -- You, son of a bloody gun, ... "The Art of Living" ? ... What next ?
     -- A progressive section of us thought we had a duty to our fellow corpses, and so we set up a Rotary ...
       The mix of dead -- many finding themselves again far too close for comfort to those they thought they could keep their distance from -- makes for lively (if also often obsessive) conversation.
       Politics intrude, too, including concerns about Hitler ("The postmistress is all up for Hitler. She says that Postmistress is a highly valued position in Germany"). And there's a foreign presence too, the Frenchman with little command of the language -- not that that keeps him taking part ("C'est l'histoires des poules, n'est-ce pas ?").
       Some of the nine chapters include a sort of prelude-section, the 'Trumpet of the Graveyard' providing a bit of background and overview of this unusual situation, but almost all the novel consists of the wide-ranging (if often also circling back on themselves) exchanges among the dead, with things livened up by new additions bringing the latest news (and disappointments). And despite the seemingly ceaseless blabbering, even here there are plaintive cries:
Let me speak ! Let me get a word in, please ! ...
       A classic Irish novel, the translation of The Dirty Dust was long overdue. Alan Titley's vigorous translation fits the dialogue-intense work well, and Ó Cadhain's creative use of language comes across well in the English too.
       Certainly an unusual work, with relatively little 'action', The Dirty Dust does a great deal within the limits of its inspired premise. Good -- and surprisingly not in the least morbid -- entertainment.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 March 2015

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The Dirty Dust: Reviews: Graveyard Clay - the film: Other books by Máirtín Ó Cadhain under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Irish author Máirtín Ó Cadhain lived 1906 to 1970.

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© 2015 the complete review

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