Al Majalla spoke to Irish author Paul Lynch, who won the esteemed Booker Prize on Sunday for his latest novel Prophet Song. The interview was conducted before he won the prize.
Prophet Song, your latest novel, is a dystopia in an unknown time in Ireland, exploring the motherhood of Eilish Stack, who is trying to protect her four children from a collapsing society and civil war. It’s a trauma that many families are suffering from around the world. What motivated you to write this novel?
In the late 1990s, when I was in my early 20s, I read Herman Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf, and a page from the book stayed with me. The book’s antihero, Harry Haller, prophesied the great destruction that was coming to Europe in a passage where he described the political fragmentation, racism and xenophobia that he was observing in Germany during that time.
In the 1990s, such a world seemed fascinating and alien. But in 2018, when I reread the book — and this is the value of re-reading classic literature, you are never the same reader twice — I experienced the proverbial chill. We in the West are now living in such dangerous times.
Western liberal democracies are no longer as stable as we thought. Many countries in Europe have seen a lurch to the political right with a rise of defensive nationalism in response to the plight of Syrian refugees flooding into Europe.
There has also been a sense that the reality consensus, the world that many of us agreed upon as real — what is news, what are the sources for news — are no longer agreed upon.
The internet has fostered the creation of multiple false images of the world, an unravelling of modern thought that is leading many into conspiratorial thinking. There are many layers in this book, but one of them asks where all of this might lead.
Having said that, I cannot directly answer your question regarding motivation. I’m not a political novelist. I don’t sit down with a grievance in mind that I need to address. I am interested in human problems, metaphysics, issues of life and death, and philosophical blindness.
I am motivated by deep, eternal human concerns, but when I sat down to write this novel, I was more porous than usual to the modern world, allowing modern chaos to pour into it.