In 'Friendship: 12 masterpieces of short fiction' for John McCarthy,Â Ryan Publishing Co. Ltd; First Edition edition (1990)
Also collected in:
"A Foreign Dignitary,in Best Short Stories 1989, edited by GilesGordon and David Hughes. 1989; as The Best English Short Stories 1989, 1989.
A tricky one this. I have read quite a few of MacLaverty’s stories but not this one Â and was unprepared for this particular tale. A lot of his shorts revolve around Northern Irish themes so the sudden departure to ‘Non-Place’ as one reviewer terms it a jolt. The tale was spun in 1988 and first published in The New Statesman which is significant. It was later anthologised in a best of and the collection ‘Walking the Dog’ from 1994. In 2002 MacLaverty submitted a radio script of the story to BBC Radio Scotland. I do not know if it was aired.
1988 was two years into John McCarthy’s captivity. It was also the year Bush elder started to run for presidency, the Soviets started to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran stopped fighting. If any of these turbulent events affected the author is unknown but the fact that it selected for the ‘Friendship’ anthology and first published in New Statesman suggests it an advowedly ‘political’ fable.
I say fable because it a strange story. A ‘foreign dignitary’ of the title, whose manners suggest British rather than European background or from any ‘Western’ power, arrives in a ‘foreign’ city. He is welcomed and entertained by his male counterparts and two events take place. He is offered a ‘virgin’ as a gift for his personal pleasure and he is shown a barbaric means of imprisoning political dissenters (including children) whilst all other crimes are dealt with by reason and discussion.
A Voltaire like political fable? The offering of the child is sickeningly simplistic and believable but the incarceration of political prisoners in steel coffins that repeatedly smashed with a hammer when they disobey is a little blunt to say the least. It like a written version of a Polish animation of a boot stamping on a head ad infinitum. The message clear. Maybe it was written with the hostage situation in Lebanon in mind but MacLaverty has enough political demons closer to his actual home to fuel the tale too. The title story of ‘Walking the Dog’ concerns a man abducted in Northern Ireland.
The story is unforgettable and striking and probably a one-off in his overall career. It skilfully sets up the reader through the mild-mannered Manadarin’s charming habit of writing a letter to his wife. This gentle introduction sets up the blunt horrors to come. As for the ‘other’. The sense of a slightly all-encompassing’heathen’ nature of the barbarians is just this side of racist suggesting a kind of people ‘not like us’ …i.e. Eastern,or Islamic. Nowhere is this stated but the contrast is clear. I think if the tale had not crashed to the rapid and circling conclusion as he quietly writes a letter home as the child is tortured it would have become to complex to succeed.
A short parable that leaves the reader puzzled, sickened and possibly relieved it not longer. I felt bemused after reading.