This novel is the memoir of Parisian violin-maker and repairer Antoine or “Tony” who in the 1970s, is inspired, by the photo of an Irish patriot shot by the British in the 1916 Easter Rising, to become passionately involved in the IRA cause, about which he previously knew nothing. So he bones up on Irish history, assumes a taste for Guinness, and works his way into the Belfast Catholic community with the aid of one-time gun-runner Jim O’Leary, willing to offer him hospitality on tap. This brings him into contact with Tyrone Meehan, a charismatic IRA leader who in turn takes a shine to him. We know from the outset that Meehan is the “traitor” of the title, so the intriguing mystery lies in the nature of the betrayal, and the reasons for it.
Having read and greatly admired two of Sorj Chalandon’s books, “Le Quatrième Mur” and “Profession de Père”, I was disappointed by “Mon Traître” for a number of reasons. It is hard to understand why Tony is so drawn to a Belfast he describes as having “cet air épais de tourbe et de charbon” – this thick air of peat and coal, the same in winter, automn, even in summer with the freezing rain, and the distinctive odour of burning hearths, children’s milk, earth, frying food and humidity. Why is he so enamoured by a man so bent at their first meeting on showing him how to use a urinal without wetting his shoes? In turn, what does Meehan see in “Tony”, a man who comes across as an “oddball” loner, naïf and, as several incidents suggest, mentally unstable? Sporting his symbolic Irish Claddagh ring and spending hours at the wake beside the open coffin of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, Tony seems desperate to gain a sense of belonging to a cause which is not his own.
There is a lack of depth in the tale which seems to romanticise the IRA, with the Protestants and British soldiers cast as villains, and to show no awareness of an alternative viewpoint, apart from a single reference to the youth of a murdered soldier. The ultimate disappointment for me was the fact that, once Meehan’s treachery to his cause is exposed, the book focuses on Tony’s own sense of bewilderment, anger and personal betrayal. There is no exploration or convincing explanation of Meehan’s behaviour.
Since the story did not ring true to me, I was surprised and perhaps chastened to learn it is based on reality in that Sorj Chalandon, when employed as a journalist in Ireland, actually formed a strong friendship with Denis Donaldson, a senior Sinn Féin member who was revealed as a British secret agent, subsequently assassinated after his treachery was exposed. Chalandon wrote this book while he was still alive, in a sense coming to terms with his own emotions. A few years later, following Donaldson’s death, he produced a sequel, “Return to Killybegs”, from Tyrone Meehan’s perspective.
From a “dramatic” viewpoint, I would have preferred a single book interweaving the contrasting stances, but it is helpful to understand the background to the two novels. Chalandon is a talented writer who creates a strong sense of place and portrays conflicted emotions, drawing on real people and events about which he clearly feels deeply, but in this instance he does not provide any fresh insights. Was I more impressed by his other works because they are based on situations about which I know less?