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BOUND TO PLEASE / Memories of Dublin’s past enhance love of its present

The Japan News

By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff WriterTime Pieces: A Dublin Memoir

By John Banville

Alfred A. Knopf, 212pp

Cities are like people. They have pasts, secrets and awkward failures as a result of adventurous experiments. They hope to move on as they get older. But Irish writer John Banville won’t let Dublin do so.

“Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir” takes a form of a combined memoir, city guide and history book in which Banville portrays the city with fresh insights and abundant information.

In memoir mode, he recalls an annual trip to Dublin from his hometown of Wexford as a little boy who saw the capital with pure admiration. It later served as the stage for a bittersweet romance in his adolescence.

Banville has written novels set in Dublin, including those made into the dark melancholic TV series “Quirke” in 2014. But, admitting that “[James] Joyce had seized upon the city for his own literary purposes and in doing so had used it up,” he takes a nonfiction approach this time to add intriguing dimensions to the flat map of present-day Dublin.

The rather compact city is neatly filled with rows of pretty Georgian houses and plenty of tempting watering holes. However, among those lovely features, there are also hideous constructions that draw frowning double takes from many passersby.

Many of those who secretly loathe such eyesores will sigh in relief at Banville’s humorous eloquence. Liberty Hall at Eden Quay is “a truncated steel and glass tower topped with a crinkled metal flange resembling a giant waffle,” while the Central Bank headquarters is a concrete cube “squatting grossly on a graceless site halfway up Dame Street.”

The book sheds lights on “developments,” “sanctioned destruction” and the “urban mutilation” of Georgian Dublin in the postwar years up to the late 1960s, which spawned those edifices. The author explains that “the ultra-nationalist ideologues who ran the country then had scant regard for the delights of Georgian architecture” and they saw it “as a despised monument to our British conquerors.” Therefore, “permissions were liberally given for large-scale despoliation.”

He goes on, “Had the state coffers been in a more healthy state, it is likely that many other such streets would have been razed to make way for the New Brutalism.”

Banville also introduces historical anecdotes to color monotonous modern landmarks, such as the dizzying, needle-like Millennium Spire, or the Spire of Dublin, which rises 120 meters above the city’s O’Connell Street thoroughfare. A British monument called Nelson’s Pillar had stood on the spot until it was demolished as a result of the Irish Republican Army’s Operation Humpty Dumpty in 1966. Knowing curious facts about the bombing gives us something to think about the Spire other than its rather unfortunate nicknames, such as “the Binge Syringe.”

The book serves as an intellectual guide to the city. Some may be tempted to rely on technology, such as Google Maps, to get a grasp of the places mentioned in the book. But Banville’s passages are so mesmerizing — even to describe the hues of bricks — that such quick and easy access to the streetscape seems superfluous.

There’s no Sagrada Familia or Colosseum in the Irish capital. But have Dubliners ever wanted them? “Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir” knows the answer.

Dublin is far from a dull, dreary, dark downtown. Learning its secrets and its past, you will find yourself embracing the charms of the city.

Where to read: On a bench in Iveagh Gardens in Dublin

Maruzen price: ¥4,310 plus tax (as of Oct. 26)

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