Liam O'Flaherty
New York: The New American Library – A Signet Classic, 1961 (originally published in 1925)

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2009

The Informer is an extraordinary book; magnificently written, suspenseful, intellectually challenging and profound. It is one of the four or five best books I’ve read in the past several years.

Gypo Nolan is a former member of the Irish Revolutionary group, living in Dublin in the early 1920s. (The author writes the data as 192_). He has been kicked out of the Revolutionary group because he and his best friend, Francis Joseph McPhillip had botched an assignment in the provinces, one in which McPhillip murdered a man.

McPhillip has been in hiding in rural mountains for some time and slips back into Dublin, knowing that he is dying of consumption. He seeks out Gypo at a sleazy flop house to inquire whether or not his father’s house is being watched, he wants to at least see his family before he dies. Gypo tells him it isn’t watched regularly, but he must be careful, and McPhillip goes for his visit. Gypo, terribly down on his luck, and one of the dumbest bad guys one could meet in fiction, hungry, needing a drink, knowing that McPhillip is dying, hurries to the police and rats out his friend, who is shot dead by the police within the hour.

Then begins the terror and torment of Gypo Nolan, knowing that it will be obvious to the revolutionaries that someone informed to the police on McPhillip. At the same time, the idiot Nolan, now, for the first time in years has a sizeable amount of money in his pocket. Not a fortune, but to an on-the-street bum, 20 pounds seems like a fortune.

The rest of the novel is the playing out of Nolan’s life, carrying the acute awareness of what will happen to him if he is found out, as he blunders on, seemingly doing nearly everything he could to be caught except taking out a bill board ad! The brilliance of the novel is O’Flaherty’s creation of Gypo Nolan and the inner workings of his mind. One might bill the novel as psychological thriller. It is that, but it also reveals extraordinary insight into the nature and minds of many other “types” around Dublin and the resistance at that time. There is the local whore, once a pretty woman, now run down, a dope addict and as needy as Gypo. There is one of the revolutionary leaders, vicious, yet aloof and cunning, McPhillip’s sister, former revolutionary, seemingly reformed and now part of the establishment, but not as in control of herself as she wishes and on and on, a cast of characters so rich in O’Flaherty’s presentation that they are nearly text book cases of the psychological times, rich and deep, yet remaining convincing individuals as well. The writing is marvelous and dark. I came away from the novel thinking virtually all of it was either at night or on dark and overcast and rainy days. This fits the mood of the whole.

Dan Gallagher, the revolutionary leader, is an example of one of O’Flaherty’s characters and his interchange with McPhillip’s sister is revealing:

“Tell me, Dan,” she whispered, “do you believe in anything? Do you even believe in Communism? Do you feel pity for the working class?”

Gallagher uttered an exclamation of contempt and shrugged his shoulders. He panted as he spoke, such was the rapidity of his words, in an effort to keep pace with the rapidity of his tempestuous thoughts.

“No,” he said, “I believe in nothing fundamentally. And I don’t feel pity. Nothing fundamental that has consciousness capable of being understood by a human being exists, so I don’t believe in anything, since an intelligent person can only believe in something that is fundamental. If I could believe in something fundamental, then the whole superstructure of life would be capable of being comprehended by me. Life would resolve itself into a period of intense contemplation. Action would be impossible. There would be no inducement for action. There would be some definite measurement for explaining everything. Men seek only that which offers no explanation of itself. But wait a minute. I haven’t worked that out fully yet. It’s only in the theoretical stage yet. I have no time.

“But you spoke of pity. Pity? Pity is a ridiculous sensation for a man of my nature. We are incapable of it. A revolutionary is incapable of feeling pity. Listen. The philosophy of a revolutionary is this. Civilization is a process in the development of the human species. I am an atom of the human species, groping in advance, impelled by a force over which neither I nor the human species have any control. I am impelled by the Universal Law to thrust forward the human species from one phase of its development to another. I am at war with the remainder of the species. I am a Christ beating them with rods. I have no mercy. I have no pity. I have no beliefs. I am not master of myself. I am an automaton. I am a revolutionary. And there is no reward for me but the satisfaction of one lust, the lust for the achievement of my mission, for power maybe, but I haven’t worked that out yet …”

When Gypo finally breaks down and confesses, he’s a mess yet many of the hardened revolutionaries are not quite as hateful and full of vengeance as one might think:

The sight was fearsome even to the callous men that surrounded him. Even THEIR hardened souls saw a vision of a strange life just then, an unknown and unexpected phantom that comes to some once in their lives and that never comes to many, the phantom of a human soul stripped naked of the covering of civilization, lying naked and horror-stricken, without help, without hope of mercy. They forgot for the moment their hatred of him. They forgot that this helpless, shapeless mass of humanity was a menace to their lives. They forgot that he was a viper they must crush. They only knew at that moment, that he was a poor, weak human being like themselves, a human soul, weak and helpless in suffering, shivering in the tolls of the eternal struggle of the human soul with pain.

Their mouths opened wide. Their eyes grew soft. Some made unconscious movements with their hands, others with their feet, unconscious movements of which their minds were not aware. For their minds, disciplined by the corroding influence of hatred, sat still and indifferent.

I came away from the novel deeply touched and challenged by it and happy to discover that on my shelf of “books to be read” I do have a copy of Famine. I think that will soon be my choice for reading. At the end of my copy of The Informer, critic Donagh MacDonagh writes of Liam O’Flaherty:

"Liam O’Flaherty was very much a writer of his time -- big, handsome wayward and a rebel, a self-declared Communist who made money, an Irish Republican who served in the British Army, a film-writer who, in 1946. advocated an Irish film industry in Irish, with subtitles in English, a native Irish-speaker who loved the language, and occasionally wrote in it, but one who had learned a lapidary English. At his worst, as in The Return of the Brute, he was sensational and dull, at his best, in Famine, Skerrett, and The Informer, he was possibly Ireland’s most underrated writer, and we must regret that Famine did not, like The Informer, catch the eye and ear of Hollywood and so give us another masterpiece of the movies."

Bob Corbett


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