Bernard Mac Laverty’s Cal
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In Bernard Mac Laverty’s novel Cal, the author sheds light on the conflict in Northern Ireland through a nineteen year old Catholic named Cal. This ideological war has devastating and detrimental effects on all involved especially Cal. Cal is a victim of this war as he is thrown into it and expected to react. As this violent war is surrounding Cal, he is also facing another type of conflict: an internal one. This internal conflict is a result of Cal’s psychological well being and results in self loathing and grueling emotional torment. Cal’s guilt ridden conscience haunts him and causes grave psychological affliction. These two forces causes him to act in ways contrary to his own beliefs and desires, produces tragic and grave consequences, and causes him to be dissociated from reality.
Events occur in Cal’s life that impacts him in a harmful way. When Cal was only eight years old Cal his mother died. This single event has had a ripple effect that has changed Cal’s life. After this tragic event Cal’s personality changes and he suffers from Childhood Grief Disorder as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Cal displays all the symptoms such as anxiety, depression, general relentlessness, emotional detachment, and most importantly dissociation. He isolates him self from reality including his father. Cal’s relationship with his father is strained and awkward. It is very close to being non existent. Cal lacks parental guidance as well as direction. Cal also suffers from Intrusion in which he has a lot of flashbacks of his mother. This weak minded individual is easily influenced by his friends and surroundings. These events allow Cal to be easily pressured and be part of the flock. Cal’s good friend Crilly has a lot of control of Cal’s life and makes decisions for him. Crilly influences Cal to participate in the Irish Republican Army and commit heinous crimes he really does not want to do. Cal is unable to stand up to Crilly and easily succumbs to his radical friend.
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The hostile and violent environment of Northern Ireland plays a significant role in the psychological development of Cal. Being forced into a war zone environment causes Cal to react. Events such as; Bloody Sunday, unveils the injustice and deplorable circumstances of the times. Also such an event inspires many to forfeit lawfulness and order since: "The effect of violent dislike between groups has always created an indifference to the welfare and honor of the state” (Bloody Sunday). Cal is an innocent bystander who did not ask or seek to be involved in this war but is forced into it. Cal has no control of the daunting situation around him. It is a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. This weak and vulnerable adolescent is the perfect candidate to take up the cause and fight in the IRA. His harsh and unfortunate childhood elicits him to find a family in the IRA. He yearns for that feeling of acceptance and being cared for and he finds in the radical group he is in.
Cal’s tender and fragile mind evokes him to participate in the most heinous crime. His part in the murder of Robert Morton, a reserve police officer, has the most effect on him. This fateful incident debilitates and destroys Cal’s life. This event aggravates Cal’s inner conflict and prompts self loathing. Cal cannot help but feel guilty of this capital offense. His guilt eats away at his conscience and basically consumes him. This event triggers his inner turmoil and he can not forgive him self of this. Cal becomes a paranoid recluse. Cal constantly feels uneasy and detaches himself from society as well as reality. This sin causes him to feel “ugly”. When Cal states that he is as ugly as “Quasimodo” he is acknowledging the awful consequences it produces. His shame and guilt are so great that “he felt he had brand stamped in blood in the middle of his forehead which would take him the rest of his life to purge” ( Mac Laverty 115).
Furthermore the psychological torment only deepens when Cal falls in love in Marcella, the widow of the man he helped murder. With her he sees redemption and forgiveness. He feels that Marcella can take away the pain and the suffering that he is feeling. Cal’s disassociation with reality causes Cal to be delusional as he whole heartedly believes that this “doomed relationship” could and would actually work. Cal naïvely thinks Marcella will rescue him from his woes, comfort him and deliver him salvation. A relationship with Marcella would never work for the obvious reasons, he murdered her husband. Cal so desperately wants to be absolved for his sin and thinks Marcella is the way. When Cal mentions “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rapunzel” is exposes the fantasy world Cal is living in. Cal can not see reality for what it really is and continues to imagine a fairy tale future with Marcella.
All of Cal’s actions and/or inactions are a result of the external as well as internal conflict within and around him. "The most dramatic conflicts are perhaps, those that take place not between men but between a man and himself -- where the arena of conflict is a solitary mind"
(Hopkins). Cal’s psychological and physical sickness, which stems from his tragic childhood, causes him disconnect from reality and not have a mind of his own. The death of his mother is the root of this sickness and has had a ripple effect. Every aspect of Cal’s life can be attributed back to that single event. Also his self loathing and guilt are so strong that he chooses not to deal with them. He rather live in a fantasy world than face reality’s ramifications. Cal’s unsuccessful quest for redemption and forgiveness through a relationship with Marcella; proves Cal still is deceived by the illusions of his senses and desires. It is Cal’s inner conflict fueled by depression, which causes in him the inability to construct a realistic future.
"Bloody Sunday." Wikipedia. 07 Oct. 2007
Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 178 pages; 1998.
Guilt, atonement and the futility of war are the central themes in Bernard MacLaverty’s 1983 novel Cal.
Set in Northern Ireland, it tells the story of Cal, a young, unemployed Catholic man living on a Protestant housing estate at the height of The Troubles. Each night he waits to be fire-bombed out of the home he shares with his father and each morning he gets up to find everything is okay.
But there’s a dark, pervasive atmosphere, one that seems only conducive to fear and violence, and for much of this novel we follow Cal’s tortured path as he wrestles with his own conscience, for he has been the accomplice in a horrendous crime for which it seems impossible to atone.
He felt that he had a brand stamped in blood in the middle of his forehead which would take him the rest of his life to purge.
Refusing to work in the nearby abattoir with his father (for reasons that become apparent much later in the story), Cal is a drifter but under pressure from local IRA men, including a shady character known as Crilly, to take sides. When he refuses to do so, the pressure only intensifies:
‘Do you still want to – refuse to help?’ ‘I’m afraid so.’ ‘Not to act – you know – is to act.’ Crilly looked confused. ‘By not doing anything you are helping to keep the Brits here.’ Crilly nodded his head vigorously and said, ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’ ‘But it all seems so pointless,’ said Cal. Skeffington paused and looked at him. He spoke distinctly, as if addressing one of his primary classes. ‘It’s like sitting in a chair that squeaks. Eventually they will become so annoyed they’ll get up and sit somewhere else.’ ‘How can you compare blowing somebody’s brains out to a squeaking chair?’ said Cal. Skeffington shrugged his shoulders. ‘That’s the way it will look in a hundred years’ time.’ ‘You have no feelings.’
When Cal gets a job working on a local Protestant farm, he finds his fortunes slightly improved: the young librarian he has been admiring from afar lives on the farm with her small daughter. She’s a widow and Cal befriends her. Before long, he is obsessed and falls in love with her. But she’s unattainable — and not merely because she’s from the “wrong” religion.
A love story
Cal is often described as a love story. On the face of it, that’s a good description. But it’s also a deeply moving story about how the political effects the personal, how ordinary people can get caught up in wider conflicts and the impact that has on their day-to-day lives.
I read it with a mixture of horror and fascination. There’s exquisite anguish and pain on every page. The pacing is brilliant, and MacLaverty’s use of flashbacks to explain events in Cal’s past are so expertly done that each new scene comes as a powerful revelation: that nothing in this story should be accepted on face value, that everyone has secrets to keep and allegiances to maintain.
Out of this horrific mire, Cal’s tortured existence, caught between the terrible deed he has committed and the redemption he seeks, is nothing short of stunning. He seems to be constantly in a state of paralysis: unable to move ahead of his own accord, passively waiting to be the victim he feels he deserves to become:
To explain how the events of his life were never what he wanted, how he seemed unable to influence what was going on around him. He had had a recurring dream of sitting at the wheel of a car driving and at a critical point turning the wheel and nothing happening.
Despite being an avid Irish literature fan, this is the first novel by Bernard MacLaverty that I have read. It won’t be the last.
by kimbofoBernard MacLaverty, Irish literature