January–February 2015        


An Irish Faustus

Tomás Mac Síomóin, The Cartographer's Apprentice: A 21st-Century Fable (Nuascéalta, 2013).

Jenny Farrell

It would be unfair to Tomás Mac Síomóin to suggest that he has a one-dimensional or indeed one-sided view of Satan. In his newly translated novel Satan first appears in the apparently kindly shape of Mephistopheles, tempting the scientist-protagonist into the pursuit of deeper knowledge—a knowledge that could potentially undo him. This inciting moment of a scientist being taken in by the Devil makes this novel the modern Irish version of the old tales of Dr Faustus, first dramatised by Christopher Marlowe and later by the German writer Goethe.
     The reader is drawn into a fantastic tale of the pursuit of this knowledge and the risks associated with possessing an enquiring mind and with scientific discovery. What makes this novel intriguing are the levels of history, the time travel between these layers, and the people we encounter. We are struck by the satanic forces that have control over people and knowledge from the Middle Ages, acting as a parallel world to both a Romanian-style autocratic “socialist” society and an “advanced” global imperialist society. The same satanic forces are at work: people living in these societies either work for and co-operate with Satan or are the victims—persecuted, sacked from their jobs, afraid to speak their minds. This is a true vision and representation of satanic class society.
     And yet this vision is projected onto the old tapestry of legends that embody dreams common to cultures around the world: the dream of everlasting youth, a society of plenty, working for a common good, with the welfare of the common people at heart. The satanic forces undermining this longing, the utopias that the ordinary people of all ages have produced, are easily spotted by the reader in the “other” world, but Mac Síomóin surprises us with the parallels he draws to reveal the same forces in a modern guise: Satan at work in a pharmaceutical concern.
     Today Satan is not as visible as in the old days: he dissolves into managements, boards of directors, and other apparently invisible forces. However, the satanic forebear of our modern Satan in the novel’s mediaeval world shows that he can be defined. He sports aspects of modernity: he dresses in a more modern style than the other members of the community, and possesses a watch. Acting as a priest in the mediaeval world, he is the dark force that prohibits access to knowledge and culture: he is the gatekeeper, preventing access to a fabulous library of human achievement, shaped like a brain. This is supremely satirical.
     Apart from Satan, female characters—the forces who take on Satan in a potentially lethal fight—also carry over from one era to the next. Our scientist-protagonist, Dr David Gallagher, is crucially aided in his quest for this mediaeval community’s recipe for longevity by Nùria. In a further echo of Goethe’s Faust, the scientist deceives the woman who trusts him and risks her life for him. In the modern world, a female fellow-scientist echoes Nùria. Nina, a member of the medical technology team ordered to wipe Gallagher’s memory, like her forebear loses her job for being potentially unreliable. She, like Nùria, is now in possession of the secret of longevity, which Satanic male members of both the mediaeval and the modern world, and their servants, wish to suppress, for reasons of profit and control.
     What she will do with this knowledge and the lobotomised Gallagher, if she will betray him, is a projection for the reader.
■ The Cartographer’s Apprentice is available at amazon.co.uk (also available as an e-book) and from Connolly Books (43 East Essex Street, Dublin) and An Ceathrú Póilí, Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich (216 Falls Road, Belfast).

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