Aiden O’Reilly first came to our planet in 1982, landing down in Stoneybatter, causing the Irish Government and others to try to capture this strange visitor as he wandered through the North Dublin suburb. When they caught him, he was head-to-toe covered in hair, and needed to be shaved in order to go unnoticed amongst Irish society.
At least that’s how Kevin Barry, prize-winning author of City of Bohane and There Are Little Kingdoms, introduced Aiden O’Reilly at the launch for debut collection Greetings, Hero.
“I told Kevin Barry to say whatever he wanted to say, and he took liberty with that. I kinda zoned out because there were people coming up the stairs at the launch, and I was just nodding to them, so I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying, but I heard him say ‘Aiden O’Reilly is a very intense person, as anyone who’s ever met him will know,’ and I thought ‘do I really want to hear this?’ And that’s all I heard.”
The author in front of me is certainly no interplanetary being nor even that intense, laughing often throughout our discussion, but Barry’s ad hoc biography does belie the fish-out-of-water aspect of O’Reilly’s stories, whose protagonists are often disconnected from society and see their world through an outsider’s perspective.
This kind of idea of being a hermit is all throughout history in the past 2,000 years, so it seems something genuine in human nature.
O’Reilly had spent up to “7 to 9 years” teaching English at various universities in Berlin and Poznan, having to learn the native languages as he went. Similar scenarios are the basis of the stories in Greetings, Hero; The Irishmen Kevin of Human Behaviour and Geoff of the title story are both alone in Berlin and Poland respectively. Globe-trotting oddball Simon is also out-of-sync with his Irish housemates in The Laundry Key Complex. However, this isolation is also felt at home in Ireland, such as Self-Assembly’s dip in to science fiction when its protagonist Eugene starts a relationship with a self-conscious and synthetic woman he has built himself. Named Genevieve, she casts doubts on Eugene’s existence, questioning the unsavoury elements of his society.
“With that story I wanted to distil the idea of somebody plunged into a different environment and that’s the pure distillation of that idea of this person literally being made out of nothing and suddenly arriving on Earth. […] She’s like a teenager who’s read a lot of books and suddenly sees how crazy the world is in comparison to the idealism you read in books. A lot of problems in the world have already been solved in books … It’s an old image of the world corrupting you, and she’s uncorrupted at the beginning, kind of uncorrupted at the end, but if you remain uncorrupted maybe that makes you too hateful, too impatient with everybody.”
Moving on from this particular story, does O’Reilly has any conscious approach when writing? “My approach, my main investigation is from the angle of what faith or belief system or ideology that somebody has, and the idea of having a crisis in life where your interpretation is questioned, and presenting stories that will divide the reader; the reader doesn’t quite know where sympathies should lie — should you admire someone or should you dislike them?”
This crisis of interpretation is present in the collection’s title story; Its protagonist Geoff travels through the industrial suburbs of Poland and Dublin dogged by an evolving fascination with Silent Michal, the seemingly unresponsive but mystical Pole who has ambitions of becoming a shepherd while the economic boom and the internet start to infiltrate their world. Michal’s strange aesthetics and habits obsess Geoff as he goes from dismissing the Pole’s ways to near-deifying this modern day monk whose devotional aura may instead derive from the autistic spectrum.
“That’s a central question in the long story: do they believe that Silent Michal has some insight? It might not be a valuable insight, but do they believe that he’s authentic? […] This kind of idea of being a hermit is all throughout history in the past 2,000 years, so it seems something genuine in human nature, and here it’s occurring in a really pathetic form, and you’re wondering if it’s real, and yeah, I’m throwing that down to the reader, and it’s kind of thrown into the dirt as it were, questioning: ‘Is this a valid area of human experience?'”
O’Reilly then discussed recently reading about a real-life Maine hermit who had been living in the woods for years, and had survived by stealing food and books from nearby houses.
“That was surprising for me to come across a real-life counterpart to Silent Michal, and a guy who’s posing the exact same question; is this on the spectrum of normal human behaviour, or is it that you want to come him in and put him in a hospital and cure him, or do you want to talk to him about what is it about humanity that he doesn’t like? Which do you want to do?”
What are your views on Michal’s evolving behaviour? “My own view is that I’m being a bit provocative there, and my own view is undecided. I put this ending in to disrupt the story, to be provocative to both myself and the reader. I think it’s within the spectrum of human experience to want to be alone like this, and we see it in the Ancient Greek Philosopher Diogenes, we see it in the hermits, the Irish hermits, the Egyptians who went out into the desert, and I think Michal is genuine, and then I put in this ending to be provocative; it’s true because I think the modern world would regard this just as an illness, rightly or wrongly.”
O’Reilly’s first collection is a startling interrogation of the modern world; his subjects are globalised and question the essentials of humanity itself, his fiction skipping between naturalism, the fantastic and science fiction. His lens is probably most incisive on the “diasporic” dimensions of Irish identity, as well as the Irish experiences of living in isolation with a compromised worldview. With his deliberate provocations, O’Reilly will be keenly discussed if enough people read him (which they really should).