Serendipity is the satisfyingly rich experience of stumbling on links between things that you had not experienced, where one thing illuminates and expands on another and leads to more links and more connections and more bonds, in a way that seems to defy the laws of physics: more comes out in the way of energy, knowledge, inspiration than goes in! Of course it's not always a joyful undertaking. At the moment my preoccupations, in writing the third of the Stefan Gillespie novels, and preparing the first part of my translation of Karl Kraus's First World War play 'The Last Days of Mankind' for publication, are frequently with what is darkest in us.
At the moment it's the beginning of WWII and the brutal aftermath of the brutal Spanish Civil War. As an example of serendipity, I was recently in the Russell Library at the University of Maynooth, an extraordinarily beautiful 19th century Pugin building that is part of the original Pontifical University. I was looking through the records of the Irish College in Salamanca, a seminary for priests, at the time of the Civil War, looking for links in a story that connected Stefan Gillespie and an Irish murder investigation to wider events in Ireland and Europe. Extraordinarily, as I was looking for a fictional world of spies, I discovered that the (obviously Franco-supporting) German government's propaganda offfice (staffed almost exclusively by Goebbels' spies naturally enough) was based in the college until 1939, and that through the college's rector there were connections to all sorts of things: semi-secret conversations between the irish ambassador, German and Spanish Intelligence, and the ex-IRA International Brigader, Frank Ryan, still imprisoned by Franco after almost every other International Brigade prisoner had been released; a holiday villa belonging to the Irish College on the coast, close to the route of the pilgrims' way to Santiago; all things I wanted to use in the story and had struggled to connect. But how all that relates to the disappearance of a postman in the small Wicklow Mountain town of Glendalough on Christmas Day 1939, you will, naturally enough, have to wait to find out! There will of course be those who know that a real postman went missing in another Irish town a few years earlier; whose body was never found. That's one of those items from the Irish Times that has so often been a starting point for Stefan Gillespie's investigations as the real becomes fiction and then, somewhere along the way, fiction re-connects to reality.
But all this focus on war makes me all the more aware how much endless, contemporary war screams out at us, every day. At times it creates a feeling of, 'Why write about the past?', and at others, for me more often, a sense of the familiar trope being as true as ever, that our failure to understand history means the perpetual repetition of its cruel and futile mistakes. But it also makes me feel that for any of us, for all of us, doing anything that celebrates the human imagination, even in the smallest way - and detective fiction is a fairly small way! - is worth something, always, simply because, somehow, it is the 'opposite' of everything that is destructive in us.
It is true even in Karl Kraus's unrelenting dissection of human folly and barbarism in 'The Last Days of Mankind'. While I don't have to take what I do too seriously, none of us should apologise for 'making things' - a story, a song, a garden, a birthday cake, a percolation system for a septic tank!, or a happy family - rather than destroying; when it comes to Kraus I guess I can be more pompous about that. Though Kraus is writing about destruction, he can't help but create by doing so. Even staring into the darkness the creative power of the human imagination won’t be denied. The play is Kraus’s way of saying, like Martin Luther, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’; with a wry smile rather than a hammer and nails. Yet it is an irony maybe unconscious even for Kraus that in his portrayal of mankind’s abandonment of humanity is an extraordinary outpouring of imaginative energy that profoundly asserts that humanity. When we create anything, in whatever small way we are doing the same thing.
This is where I am in 'The Last Days at the Moment'. It is a song Karl Kraus puts into the mouth of a German industrialist, Wahnschaffe, singing about the benefits of war for the German economy, and the idea that some kind of 'perpetual' warfare is mankind's natural state. These days we are uncomfortable with the idea that there are any 'judgements' to be made about the First World War - who started it, who stood to gain most from it, who allowed it to continue in its millions-murdering fashion - except to blame 'power' in whatever shape or form suits our own particular agenda. Karl Kraus is far more inclusive! The answer to those questions is, for him, that at some level everyone is to blame, simply by virtue of the fact that they are human! That doesn't mean he doesn't focus his attacks most on the powerful, the aristocracy, politicians of every stripe, businessmen, military leaders, industrialists, financiers, the press, science - but no one escapes blame entirely. Here his focus is on aspects of German culture - and bear in mind this is, essentially, a culture he is a part of - that he despises for their self-righteous brutality, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't see the same things on the 'other side', retweaked and as self-righteously murderous. For Kraus it's not charity but rage that begins at home.
Whether far beneath waves, or high in the sky,
It’s only the arseholes who won’t fight and die.
Now, I’m used to graft, I can graft like hell,
But why bust my arse at the front as well?
I can duck and dive with grace and dash
On the home front here where graft is cash.
And so I graft from dawn till late,
That’s what all the begrudgers hate.
Hit hard Germany! It’s our hullabaloo?
I was war’s servant before there was a war;
Now peace is over it’s my time to score.
I’ll work and slave (in degree to the nth)
Because war alone is my source of strength.
Before any conflict I was keen to enlist,
Now the battlefront’s paying me hand over fist.
You’re on the pig’s back when you get your guerdon
As heavy industry’s beast of burden.
Krupp Inc is our cry! War is what we do!
All the toil and trouble feels just like play;
There’s hardly enough time in my day.
I’ve worked every hour God sent along,
With the Watch on the Rhine to keep me strong.
I saw world war coming so I never rested,
And now it’s arrived I cannot be bested.
We will fight the good fight so vehemently,
Watching the competition flee.
In fear of their lives! We’ll break them in two!
I have given my honest Nibelung troth:
Germany will see export growth.
We’ll carve our place out in the sun
Though we cower in trenches to get it done.
To make sure future profits abound
We’ll live our present underground.
Not that I’ve sought for goods and gold,
Just Germany in heroic mould.
Fatherland hail! We are forged anew!
War serves us well with our vast arms’ haul;
We’ve turned the tables, who dares wins all.
And while foodstuff security’s holy writ
We subsist here mostly eating shit.
Now business and prayer go hand in hand;
God is a sales’ pitch to ramp up demand;
With the salesman as priest art must kowtow;
Valhalla’s a bonded warehouse now.
Oh, we live for ideals as we kneel in the pew!
Surviving on vegetables, mushrooms and rice
Is worthy, of course, but it comes at a price.
Where the table is empty there may be no strife,
But as life goes it’s not much of a life.
Living from hand to mouth, as we know,
Is unhealthy at best with no quid pro quo.
So why not mouth to hand? Won’t ideals do?
In the absence of food can’t they see us through?
A meal of ideals! Yes, that’s our kind of stew!
There’s a principle here, worth the price that we pay;
It explains why earth’s swimming in blood today.
For exports and moolah (our profit’s true creed)
The whole of humanity just has to bleed.
So give gold for iron and venom for bread;
Let these prayers to the fatherland’s God be said!
You can even sell blood for marks – trust me,
No exchange rate commission – I guarantee.
It’s all pure, pure profit! Just watch it accrue?
And if things aren’t going too well for us
Our Press Bureau doesn’t make any great fuss.
Where others’ truths simply aren’t true enough
We feed ourselves up on good home-made stuff.
If foreign words have to be replaced
We’ve got German ones ready to cut and paste.
We have ersatz food, so why not diffuse
Unpalatable truths with ersatz news?
Defeat is victory! Do not misconstrue!
And were this world all devils o’er,
Where the foes are many, the honour is more.
So: German boldness has contemned
The whole damned pack of them in the end.
We’ve an aura of dash, bravura, vim
That the wide world envies; hear our hymn:
May God scourge England in this war;
He alone knows we’ve got virtues galore.
He’s a German God! With our point of view!
But we praise the Lord in our own way,
At the pre-war prices we still pay.
For the glory of God, who is ever just,
We will happily fight in the dark if we must.
If there was sunshine all the time
Would life be nearly half as sublime?
Guns and bullets are what we adore,
So gaudeamus igitur!
We’re merry and bright! A cheerful crew!
One thing in which we’re heaven-blessed,
We’ve so much more culture than the rest.
More than all other gifts, it is our art
That truly sets us and them apart.
Though we are mad about our lords of war
It’s with our thinkers we really score.
Take Schiller and Goethe – the world just cowers
When we say: Hey there, those guys are ours!
Hail home and culture! Whom don’t we outdo?
German minds and hearts walk hand in hand:
God save Krupp Inc and the fatherland!
Hindenberg keeps our borders tight;
In my mind and heart I fight the same fight.
We’re almost blessed with too much luck;
We retreat covertly, despite our pluck.
And when we do celebrate a victory
We take our Siegfried stance up modestly.
With proud hurrahs! And much ado!
More foes, more honour! Words we are fed,
Though there’s still no butter on our bread.
Yet that won’t prevent our brave firestorms
From carpeting the whole wide world with bombs.
And with German science on our side,
And a God who scourges British pride,
We’ll make mankind so bold, so strong,
And thresh the weak out from the strong.
Made in God’s image! Now that’s some coup!
We can churn out clichés like the foe;
We’re united in trading that sort of blow.
But finally truth will conquer death;
The fight goes on till the final breath.
We have to ensure we get our hands
On the iron ore lying beneath French lands.
Peace doesn’t interest us, let it rot!
We’ll annex the earth, we’ll take the whole lot.
At least there’ll be order! Isn’t that our cue!
We fight for our honour, more precious than gold.
But Belgium stays ours; we have what we hold.
We know honour and glory alone will endure,
And we will keep our cloak of rectitude pure.
In the end final victory will prove us right;
We’ll surround the whole world and tie it up tight!
We must win, we will win, and by God’s grace
Our bullshit will conquer the market place.
When it’s all German-made, that’ll be some brew!
But we do need our place in the sun, therefore
We’ve plunged the world into darkness, war.
With disease, gas, poison, who can say
That we won’t battle on till Judgement Day?
Till we finally hear God’s thundering voice
Ersatz will remain our truth of choice;
Through all the earth, till the last trump sounds,
Listen, our thunderous roar resounds!
We’re a practical lot! We’ve got some world view!
Now the world’s ablaze, as the press demands,
As the Fenris-Wolff Press Agency commands.
Other nations proudly strut their stuff,
Are we, though unloved, not good enough?
Wherever weapons are not admired
Our accomplishments have somehow misfired.
But though the world wants no strife at all,
We will bluster and roar like a thunderball.
It’s the sound of Germany breaking through!
And when this war’s done we’ll start again,
With more war, more suffering, more pain.
Isn’t that something to look forward to?
Love never ends, love is always new.
Oh, if only peace could replace war
So that I could grow tired of it once more.
Technological progress, of course, is a must –
Like the U-boats, now, in which we trust.
Progress, all-hail! That’s for us, not you!
Let’s spread conscription far and wide,
Let’s teach our children to bomb with pride,
And lest the old feel they’ve been missed
We’ll keep them all on the call-up list.
What we have learned we won’t ever forget;
We’ll build more barracks till our needs are met;
We’ll free this world from peace at last:
The Watch on the Rhine is strong and fast!
Doesn’t history tell us that’s what we do?
And were this world all devils o’er,
And no foe left to fight us any more,
And the task completed, the job well done,
And Germany’s future out in the sun,
And Prussia the only place there is –
Will we fall for that one? It’s still the bizz!
Fast stands the Watch on the Rhine tonight
Germany still fights the eternal fight!
Fight on! Fight on! We will win through!