A Review of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The above poem by Maya Angelou (not from this book, by the way) encapsulates in a few lines why the voices of protest are the loudest, and the literature the most powerful when it is forcefully suppressed. Because the only thing the caged bird can do is sing, he will keep on doing it, lest he go mad. Poetry will keep on flowing out of the decapitated head of Orpheus.

I understand that this book has been banned multiple times. Not surprising, considering that the words of the poet have more power than swords or bullets, as proved time and again by history.

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Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson) and her brother Bailey were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas when their parents’ marriage fell apart. It was the early thirties, and the North and the South of USA were poles apart as far as coloured people were concerned; in the North, they were part of the society (albeit an insular one) while in the South, they were the despised ‘niggers’.

Maya spent most of the formative part of her childhood down south. Her grandmother (‘Momma’) was a singularly resourceful woman who owned a store: they managed to live in relative comfort even during the Depression era. However, this material comfort was offset by the fact that they were always the hated ‘other’ – the ‘whitefolk’ who lived apart (almost a mythical race, in Maya’s young mind) were powerful and whimsical gods who could visit death and destruction any time on any black man or woman. Even the ‘powhitetrash’, the drifters and squatters who had the fortune to be born into the Anglo-Saxon race, could insult even the propertied black people with impunity.

When she was eight years old, Maya’s father took her brother and herself to their mother, Vivian Baxter, in St. Louis. Here the incident which was to become the turning point of her life happened. The eight-year old girl was raped by her mother’s current boyfriend, Mr. Freeman: he managed to wiggle out of jail only to be murdered, presumably by Maya’s maternal uncles who were also the town toughs. As a result of this, she became a virtual mute for almost five years.

Sent back to Stamps, Maya continued her zombie-like existence until she was brought back into the world of the living by Bertha Flowers, a teacher and family friend – she did this by the expedient of introducing the girl to books. Maya found refuge in the world of imagination, and slowly came back to normal.

She again went to live with her mother in California when she was 15. During this sojourn, she visited her father in Southern California where another traumatic event in her life took place. After a frightening journey across the border into Mexico along with her father (when she was forced to drive a car back to the US in the night with him passed out in the back – even though she was not a qualified driver!), Maya was attacked and stabbed by her father’s girlfriend. She quit home and lived for a month in a junkyard, with similar social drop-outs, before returning to her mother.

A month of living in the rough had emboldened the shy and withdrawn girl. Maya decided to get a job as a streetcar conductor, even though the occupation was closed to blacks, and succeeded: the activist and rebel were just emerging. The first installment of this extended autobiography ends with the picture of Maya as a teen mother, of a child conceived out of a casual sexual encounter which she had just to satisfy that she was ‘normal’ (that is, heterosexual)!

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Maya writes with a disarming honesty and a genuine sense of humour. Even the most distressing events are discussed casually – the child’s eye view is done really well. The book is eminently readable. Still, is this a great book? I would not say so. Good, yes: genuinely great, no.

The causal tone, for me, took away most of the poignancy. Even the extremely distressing rape incident – though described in gory detail – fails to really make an impact. My personal feeling is that this is the author’s way of coping with personal trauma: you take the emotion out of it. However, it might come across to people that her mother never cared much (I have found this view expressed on one or two of the one-star reviews for this book on this site).

However, I salute Maya’s courage in writing this explicit memoir. Being a black woman, she feels disadvantaged thrice, as she says:

The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

So maybe, the best defence is to attack. Throw the hypocrisy of society back in its face. Say: “This is I. Accept me for what I am, whether you like what you see or not!”

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Maus: the Power of the Graphic Novel

MausAs I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I am a member of a generation who grew up reading comics. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones… the list goes on and on.

All these had a common characteristic – they were “safe” for children. They were saccharine tales stripped off all the unpleasantness in life: one feels that the parents of Siddhartha Gautama (before he became the Buddha) would have approved of them. Even the fairy tales which had a lot of gruesome elements were sanitised for children’s consumption.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that children should be exposed to the full horrors of life from a tender age onwards. Parents can take a call on this – as they have been doing, expertly or inexpertly for years. My focus here is on a medium, which has a lot of possibilities, being forced to sit in a corner and babble in baby talk.

I am talking about the medium of comics, or to give it a more fitting name, the graphic novel.

***

There was a time when horror stories, told in comic format, ruled the roost in the USA.

Entertaining Comics, or EC Comics, published horror stories, crime stories and war stories with vivid graphics that pulled no punches. The stories were uniformly gruesome, and must have given kids sleepless nights and “delicious nightmares” (to borrow a phrase from Alfred Hitchcock). I do not wish to enter into the debate whether the publications of such stories were ethical or not: they effectively went out of publication in 1954 because of the stringent guidelines put into effect by the “Comics Code Authority” set up by the Comics Magazine Association of America. It was a move ostensibly to save the youth. What it did, in my opinion, was to destroy (or at least temporarily deactivate) a powerful medium.

For me, a child of the sixties, all this history was unknown. For me, comics meant Disney and his contemporaries; telling cute stories of animals and fairies living in idyllic surroundings, where the most frightening thing was the bumbling Big Bad Wolf. Even the comics meant for “mature” readers, like Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom, contained a surprisingly small amount of violence or death. What it resulted in was my rejection of the format itself as not worthy of serious consideration.

Until I read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

***

Persepolis I: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis II: The Story of a Return recount Marjane Satrapi’s life as a rebellious teenager in the Iran of the Islamic Revolution; her “escape” from the country; and her return to find a totally changed landscape. It is a novel, told in comic-book format, and she exploits the possibilities of the medium to the fullest extent.

The illustrations are all in stark black and white. The story is told in a straightforward fashion, with little embellishments – however, the inherent power of exaggeration available to the cartoonist makes the difference. I was especially impressed by the way violence was portrayed: graphic and shocking, yet not at all disgusting.

However, compared to Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: Here My Troubles Began, Persepolis is tame – because Maus takes that taboo subject, the Holocaust, and makes a comic-book out of it.

***

“The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but not human” – Adolf Hitler

Dehumanising the enemy is the first step towards eliminating them: which is what Hitler tried to do with Jews and nearly succeeded. In this book, Art Spiegelman tells us a story from that dark era – a very personal one, that of his father – yet distances us emotionally brilliantly by using Brechtian techniques.

Vladek Spiegelman, Art Spiegelman’s father, is a survivor of Auschwitz. He has a troubled relationship with his son: Vladek, a man of extreme miserliness and obsessive-compulsive traits, is very hard to get along with. He lives with his wife Mala (whom he married after Anja, Arthur’s mother committed suicide), with whom he has a love-hate relationship. Art, a child born after the Holocaust, is trying to tease out his father’s life story. It is the story of these interactions between father and son as much as the story of the Holocaust that these books tell.

The story of Art’s parents until their incarceration in Auschwitz is narrated In part one. Vladek, a handsome young entrepreneur in Poland, marries Anja, an heiress. They have a blissful life until Nazism starts rearing its ugly head, first in Germany and then in most of Eastern Europe. Anja and Vladek, returning from a sanatorium in Czechoslovakia where they had sojourned after Anja’s post-natal bout of depression, find Poland drastically changed – as Jews they were not safe any more.

However, the full extent of the Nazi design on Jews is brought home to Vladek when he is captured as a prisoner of war. He sees that Jews are treated differently from other POWs, and their ultimate destination is the grave: the question is only whether it shall be a slow death due to deprivation or a fast death by a bullet. Using his innate cunning, Vladek manages to escape and come back to his family.

By now, however, Poland is overrun. Jews live in ghettos. Spiegelman and his in-laws hide out for a time, but one by one their numbers get depleted as more and more people all either executed or shipped off to concentration camps. (Vladek and Anja send their firstborn Richieu with Tosha, Anja’s sister, to a “safe” ghetto – however, he is also killed by Tosha before she commits suicide, when they are about to be captured.) Ultimately, only Anja and Vladek are left – until they are also taken, betrayed by people who promise to smuggle them out to Hungary: the last in a line of betrayals.

Part One ends with the shocking discovery when Arthur learns that his father has destroyed all the notebooks his mother had kept, about her life in the concentration camp, after her suicide. As Art feels partly responsible for her death – it happened following his drug addiction, and institutionalisation in an asylum – he feels this act to be equivalent to murder: the murder of memories. Art calls Vladek a murderer and walks away in a huff.

In Part Two, Mala has had enough and left Vladek during their vacation, and he wants his son and his wife to move in with him, permanently – something which Arthur cannot imagine. However, they stay with him temporarily as Vladek continues with the story.

Maus 1

In the camp, the inmates are subjected to a slow, drawn-out death sentence as the guards play with them. There is no humanity here, it’s every man for himself, and the toughest shall only survive. And Vladek happens to be one smart, tough guy. He not only manages to survive, he manages to get Anja to survive, even to meet her inside the concentration camp. After the war, he manages to track his wife down, and start a new life.

***

After finishing this narrative which left me devastated, something was forcefully impressed upon me: the comic book format is the best format (perhaps the only format) to tell this harrowing tale.

Art Spiegelman uses a standard tool available to the caricaturist – anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics to animals.  Here, the device is put on its head as human beings are transformed into animals. The Jews are portrayed as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs. Changing the characters into animals accomplishes two things – by taking away the individuality, we are forced to look at the big picture: and the race differences are emphasised so as to be insurmountable (a Jew and a Gentile are both human beings, but a mouse can never become a cat). So even when we are caught up in the story, the political subtext is never forgotten.

The cruelty of Auschwitz is emphasised by showing the Nazi cats playing with the Jew mice before killing them. The Nazi cats are not the cute ones out of Tom and Jerry, but have uniformly frightening visages which are set in permanent snarls. Mice are anyway “vermin” to be exterminated. But they are very clever and adept at finding holes to hide in – this is what many Jews did during that terrifying era (the Spiegelman’s hidey-holes are covered under the chapter “Mouse Holes” in Part One).

When the Jews are trying to disguise themselves as Poles, they are shown wearing pig masks tied at the back of the head. The use of this standard trope of comic-book disguise is brilliant here: its ineffectiveness is showed up, as well as the meaninglessness of dividing people into racial categories.

For me, the most impressive part of the book was the second one, where Art tries to come to terms with his father’s death as well as the ethics of making a book out of his life. Here, all the characters are shown as wearing animal masks, rather than as animals themselves – they have become more humanised and homogeneous, but the masks of race and nationality are not fully discarded.

Maus 2

As Art is interviewed by journalists from various countries, the panels depict, at the bottom, heaps of dead mice piled one on top of the other, their faces twisted in agony – this is superb use of the medium, not possible in a conventional narrative. Art regresses to a child, crying out for his dead mother, as the paparazzi bully him – a sequence both terrifying and comic.

(A funny tidbit:

An Israeli journalist asks Art: “If your book was about Israeli Jews, what kind of animal would you draw?

Art’s reply: “I have no idea… porcupines?”

A sliver of humour in a bleak narrative: I chortled at that!)

The troubled relationship between Art and Vladek is analysed in detail: and we get a glimpse of how Vladek changed into the self-centred, obsessive-compulsive miser that he has become. Did he survive because these traits were inbuilt, or did the camp life make him what he is? Tantalising question.

However, the penultimate panel of the comic is so very poignant and sentimental that it brought a lump to my throat.

Vladek is falling asleep, tired out after their very last session, and he tells Art: “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now…”

The dead son, the beautiful boy who should have had a bright future which was snuffed out by mindless race hatred – Vladek is talking to him here.

And I feel, to all such beautiful and unfortunate children.

A Review of “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all.  It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Thus begins one of the most acclaimed, popular and controversial memoirs ever written: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  It won the hearts of millions of readers, the Pulitzer Prize, and the undying hatred of many Irishmen.  It even went on create, according to The Daily Mail, a new kind of literature – the Misery Memoir, or ‘mis-lit’.

McCourt firmly connects the misery of his childhood in the slums of Limerick to the endemic poverty of pre-World War II Ireland, a country raped by the English, and the joyless and guilt-ridden Catholicism of the people.  See how in a few deft strokes he gives us a précis of the book in one paragraph.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

Frank’s “shiftless loquacious alcoholic father” is Malachy McCourt, who has fled to America with a price on his head by the English for his activities in the IRA.  There he meets young and spirited Angela Sheehan, out there on the lookout for opportunities in the New World.  It is love at first sight, and soon a “knee-trembler” (the sexual act done up against a wall) results in the conception of Frank, and Malachy has to do the right thing by the girl.

So Malachy and Angela end up wedded, and very soon, they have a large family: Frank, the eldest, Malachy, born one year later, Eugene and Oliver, the twins and Margaret, the youngest and the apple of her father’s eye.  With the birth of Margaret, her father’s shiftless ways improve, and he starts bringing home his salary on weekends: however, the child dies after a brief existence of six weeks, and Malachy returns to his old habits with a vengeance.  This consists of going to the pub directly with his salary on a Friday, spending it all there and coming fully drunk late in the night; getting his small sons out of bed, asking them to sing patriotic songs and promise to die for Ireland.  When the poverty becomes unbearable in the midst of the Great Depression, the family moves back to Ireland, in hope of greener pastures.  But they soon learn that things are worse in their home country.

First of all, the IRA refuses to acknowledge Malachy McCourt’s contribution to the war of independence, and the pension he had set his mind on evaporates into thin air.  Secondly, nobody is willing to employ him, with his Northern name and accent (in the South, the North are taken as traitors because they are mostly Protestant – a heinous crime, in the eyes of an Irishman – and the northern counties decided to stick with the Union) and “odd manner”.  And to compound it all, is Malachy’s alcoholism which is increasingly worsening.

The family settles into a miserable slum in Frank’s mother’s native town of Limerick.  The unhealthy atmosphere and poverty soon take their toll.  The twins, Eugene and Oliver, fall sick and pass away, one after the other.  Angela is hysteric, moving close to madness – and Malachy turns to his only consolation, drink, more and more often.

They move to a new house, as Angela cannot stay in the one where her children died – but it is worse than the old one.  The communal toilet, where the whole lane empties their slop buckets into, is located at the ground floor of their house, near the kitchen.  The stink is continuous.  While it rains, the whole ground floor is flooded with water, carrying in all the filth from outside: the family has to confine themselves to the bedroom upstairs (fondly nicknamed “Italy”, because of its warmth).

No one is ready to help the family.  Frank’s maternal Grandmother cannot accommodate them all in her house and Angela’s sister Aggie does not want to.  The children know precious little other than admonitions and scolding, and the hellish atmosphere of sin and punishment forever present as a miasma in their fiercely Catholic schools only adds to the woe.

The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.  My brothers are dead and my sister is dead and I wonder if they died for Ireland or the Faith.  Dad says they were too young to die for anything.  Mam says it was disease and starvation and him never having a job.

Frank’s mother’s family is pretty dysfunctional.  His mother and her sister are permanently at loggerheads.  They don’t like his father because he’s a Northerner.  Angela’s eldest brother Tom is not very comfortable with the family as they don’t like his wife.  The youngest brother, Pat, is mentally challenged and lives in a world of his own.  As Frank puts it (after he pukes up the sacred wafer in the backyard after his first confession):

Grandma won’t talk to Mam anymore because of what I did with God in her backyard.  Mam doesn’t talk to her sister, Aunt Aggie, or her brother Uncle Tom.  Dad doesn’t talk to anyone in Mam’s family and they don’t talk to him because he’s from the North and he has the odd manner.  No one talks to Uncle Tom’s wife, Jane, because she’s from Galway and she has the look of a Spaniard.  Everyone talks to Mam’s brother Uncle Pat, because he was dropped on the head, he’s simple, and he sells newspapers.

Death is ever-present: so is filth, sickness, sin and the threat of Hell.  Poverty and disease takes its toll on the populace so regularly that it has become a routine fact of life for the children.  (There is an incident narrated by Frank where the consumptive family members of one of his friends are dying one by one.  When his sister falls sick, the boy begs Frank and others to pray for her so that she doesn’t die during the summer recess – thus depriving him of two weeks’ time away from school!  The friends oblige, because they are promised sumptuous food at the girl’s wake: a promise on which the brother reneges.  So the kids seek vengeance, and pray that all the remaining family should die only during summer holidays.  And when the boy himself passes away the next summer, they feel that their prayers have been answered.)

Frank himself has had his dance with death immediately after his confirmation.  He’s admitted to the hospital with typhoid.  As he shuttles between life and death in the less-than-loving care of nuns, his only solace comes from the “diphtheria girl” Patricia Madigan in the next room.  They are placed far apart as a punishment for the sin of talking, but not before she teaches him the poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.  However, she dies before she can recite him the whole story; and Frank has to bear the suspense until the illiterate hospital attendant Seamus learns it from somebody in a pub, and recites it to him.  The doomed love story of the highwayman and Bess, the landlord’s daughter serves as a pivotal point in the book for love, death and Frank’s own doomed first love, Patricia.

For in this depressing scenario, apart from death, there is also desire, lust and alcohol.  In fact, one of the main strengths of the memoir is how the author juxtaposes the descriptions of chamber pots filled with urine and excrement with Frank’s slowly awakening sexuality.  Lust is always mixed up with disease and death, and the sexual scenes (most of them implied rather than described) are more disturbing than exciting – for example, Frank’s public ejaculation in the park behind the library and later, his first sexual experience with the consumptive Theresa Carmody, who knows that she will not live for much longer, so is desperate for the experience.

The real downturn in the fortunes of the McCourt family begins when Malachy goes to England to work in the munitions factories during the Second World War.  It is a lucrative job, and many families grow rich outright from the money the men send from England.  But Frank’s father cannot let go of his Friday pint; and Angela and the children go from bad to worse, to the extent of pulling down the walls of their house to burn for firewood during the winter.  They are turned out of the house, and forced to move into the house of Gerard (“Laman”) Griffin, Angela’s cousin.

It is here that Frank’s world comes crashing down.  Laman is a waster, and a cruel one at that: he takes advantage of their situation, and Angela is forced to prostitute herself.  (Laman lives in the attic room, never coming down even for his primary needs.  Frank can hear Angela climbing upstairs, and the sound of “the excitement” happening up there, every night.)  But what finally proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back is Laman’s bicycle, sitting in the backyard.

Laman promises to give this to Frank for a trip to Killaloe: in return, he has to empty and clean the chamber pot every morning.  Frank agrees and carries out his part of the bargain faithfully, but the other party reneges on his promise.  When Frank questions him, Laman beats him up, even though his mothr tries to intervene.  But what really rankles Frank is what happens afterward.

I can hear Mam crying when she blows into the globe of the paraffin oil lamp and everything goes dark.  After what happened she’ll surely want to get into her own bed and I’m ready to go into the small one against the wall.  Instead, there’s the sound of her climbing the chair, the table, the chair, crying up into the loft and telling Laman Griffin, He’s only a boy, tormented with his eyes, and when Laman says, He’s a little shit and I want him out of the house, she cries and begs till there’s whispering and grunting and moaning and nothing.

In awhile they are snoring in the loft and my brothers are asleep around me.  I can’t stay in this house for if Laman Griffin comes at me again I’ll take a knife to his neck.

Frank sees this as the ultimate betrayal: he does not understand that his mother has to prostitute herself to keep a roof above their heads (I wonder how many poor kids have to undergo the same humiliation on a daily basis).  He leaves home, and stays with his mentally challenged uncle in his Grandma’s house, who has passed away by this time.  Frank lands a job as telegram delivery boy in the post office – he has come to the conclusion that he has to somehow fend for himself, by hook or by crook.  He moves on to a more lucrative job with a newspaper dealer, and also takes up a part-time job as the composer and deliverer of threatening letters to defaulting debtors for a moneylender lady.  Ultimately, it is with the money stolen from her purse (technically: the lady is lying dead at that time) that Frank boards the boat to his dreamland: America.

But that is in the future yet, when Frank turns nineteen: before that, there is that distressing scene with Mam, after he had “drunk his first pint”.

…She says, That’s a nice state to come home in.

It’s hard to talk but I tell her that I had my first pint with Uncle Pa.  No father to get me the first pint.

Your Uncle Pa should know better.

I stagger to a chair and she says, Just like your father.

I try to control the way my tongue moves in my mouth.  I’d rather, rather be like my father than Laman Griffin.

She turns away from me and looks into the ashes in the range but I won’t leave her alone because I had my pint, two pints, and I’m sixteen tomorrow, a man.

Did you hear me?  I’d rather be like my father than Laman Griffin.

She stands up and faces me.  Mind your tongue, she says.

Mind your own bloody tongue.

Don’t talk to me like that.  I’m your mother.

I’ll talk to you any bloody way I like.

You have the mouth of a messenger boy.

Do I?  Do I?  Well, I’d rather be a messenger boy than the likes of Laman Griffin oul’ drunkard with the snotty nose and his loft and people climbing up there with him.

She walks away from me and I follow her upstairs to the small room.  She turns, leave me alone, leave me alone, and I keep barking at her, Laman Griffin, Laman Griffin, till she pushes me, Get out of this room, and I slap her on the cheek so that tears jump in her eyes and there’s a small whimpering sound from her, You’ll never have the chance to do that again, and I back away from her because there’s another sin on my long list and I’m ashamed of myself.

Yes, one more sin: symbolic matricide to add to theft, fornication, lying and whatnot.  The miserable Irish Catholic childhood is in full flower when Frank wanders over to the church to bid goodbye to God forever, and more particularly, the saint whose namesake he is, St. Francis of Assisi.  However, in front of the statue of the saint, what he finds is confession and consolation, in the form of a kindly Franciscan priest, Father Gregory.  As Francis confesses all to his patron saint, the father sits near him being “only a pair of ears for St. Francis and Our Lord”, assuring him that God forgives all who repent.  Thus, we feel, a sort of peace has been made: Father Gregory has shown Frank a way out of the hellhole of guilt and sin he has been wallowing in since he could remember.

The book ends with Frank on the deck of the boat sailing into America, into New York, into the land of dreams and opportunity.  To the question of the Wireless Officer of the boat (“Isn’t this a great country altogether?”), he replies in true Irish fashion: ‘Tis.

The Controversy

This review wouldn’t be complete if I did not touch upon the controversy surrounding the book.  To be fair, not even the book’s greatest detractors say that it is badly written.  No, Frank McCourt has been criticised not for bad writing but for falsification of facts, and for making crude caricatures of Irishmen.

From The Daily Mail, 21 July 2009:

But as well as starting a publishing phenomenon, McCourt’s searing bestseller Angela’s Ashes, which has sold some five million copies, also began a terrible feud.

Locals called him ‘a conman and a hoaxer’, and claim he ‘prostituted’ his own mother in his quest for literary stardom, by turning her into a downtrodden harlot who committed incest in his book.

The article goes on to say:

Their three biggest criticisms of the book, aside from the endless grinding misery it depicts, include the description of a local boy, Willy Harold, as a Peeping Tom who spied on his naked sister. It turns out that Mr. Harold, now dead, never had a sister – which McCourt did later acknowledge.

They also disputed McCourt’s account of his sexual relations with Teresa Carmody, when he was 14. She was dying of TB at the time, and locals were outraged that he sullied her memory.

Frank Prendergast, a former Limerick mayor and local historian who grew up within 200 yards of McCourt’s house, says that if McCourt did suffer, it was because he had a feckless father.

‘He suffered a unique poverty because his father was an alcoholic, not because he lived in Limerick,’ says Mr Prendergast. ‘But he has traduced people and institutions that are very dear to Limerick people.’

Frank McCourt replied to these criticisms: “I can’t get concerned with these things. There are people in Limerick who want to keep these controversies going. I told my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that’s what I experienced and what I felt.  Some of them know what it was like. They choose to take offence. In other words, they’re kidding themselves.”

True or false?   After finishing this devastating memoir, the only thing I can say is that it is beautifully written.  McCourt may have caricatured the Irish, but I never found them comic, but largely sympathetic.  And Angela’s act of adultery (if it ever happened) only raised my esteem for her; for a lady stooping to such a depth to keep her family alive.  What an effort it must have taken her!  Poverty is very real, and people do many things which they are ashamed of later: who is one to judge?  “Judge not, lest thou should be judged.”

In closing, I do not think Frank McCourt’s memoir is entirely truthful.  Nor do I consider it outright lies.  As Julian Barnes said in The Sense of an Ending, history is most probably not the lies of the victors, nor the delusions of the defeated: they are the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.

Frank McCourt was such a survivor.