Beleaguered Belfast In Poetry and Prose

BELFAST CONFETTI. By Ciaran Carson, North Carolina: Wake Forest University Press, 108 pp., $8.95 paper LIES OF SILENCE. By Brian Moore, New York: Doubleday, 197 pp., $18.95. THE muse of Belfast has not been silent. In his version of Dante's ``Inferno,'' Seamus Heaney compared the North Ireland city to Pisa; the cities share interminable fratricide. Derek Mahon has written eloquently of Belfast's ``Augustinian austerities of sand and stone.'' Most recently, Ciaran Carson has published a book of poems about contemporary Belfast. ``Belfast Confetti'' refers to the small bricks used in riots there. Carson's lanky verses and prose poems have made poetry out of the scary complexities of the distraught city.

And now a prose artist of the first order has painted a portrait of the city. Brian Moore left Belfast in his early 20s, 50 years ago. He has become known as the novelist's novelist. He writes with superb impersonality. This time he has chosen the suspense novel form to reveal the character of his Belfast.

Belfast's troubles began in the 17th century, when British and Scottish plantation owners became the Irish equivalent of South Africa's Afrikaners or the American South's plantation owners.

Moore's portrait of Belfast is of a city divided against itself. It's embodied in two individuals, Michael Dillon and his wife, Moira. Both are Catholic. A failed poet-turned-hotel manager, Michael hates Ireland; Moira won't live anywhere else. Michael married Moira for her beauty; three years later, her unhappiness, and her bulimia, have become acute and symbolic of the Irish problem. Michael falls in love with Andrea, a young Canadian from the BBC and is about to tell Moira he wants a divorce when they are surprised one night as they are preparing for bed. The IRA has plans for them.

``Lies of Silence'' is a bit of moral mathematics that leaves the reader mesmerized, on the brink of understanding. Michael's dream of happiness with Andrea - they plan to move to London - becomes subordinated to an ethical dilemma. The IRA men have told Michael that if he squeals on them they will kill Moira.

But Moira turns out to be a stouter character than Michael. She has her own way of torturing the young IRA thugs who hold her captive. After the episode, she goes on television and exhorts all Belfast to stand up to the IRA. It's clear that she has found a purpose in life.

Or in death. Moira gradually reveals herself to be an embodiment of certain traits of romantic Ireland. Indeed, at times she seems suicidal. Martyrdom, some call it; Michael has occasion to recall the teachings of his Catholic school regarding the glory of dying for Ireland.

Eventually, after Moira has forgiven him, Michael asks: ``Was any country worth the price that Ireland asked, a beggar's price, demanded again and again and never paid in full?''

Moore's portrait of Belfast is done in such an offhanded way that it almost seems a parody of the form. Style is subdued to plot, plot is subdued to character, and character is subdued to fate. Just before the final twist of the screw, there is a sudden excess of sweetness and happiness, a surge of human fulfillment.

For Michael, poetry would have been another escape, perhaps; for the poets of Belfast, like Ciaran Carson, it's been a way of clarifying the situation. And for Brian Moore, who will surely now be recognized as a great novelist, the poetry is in the prose.

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