The Temporary Gentleman
In 1957, inside a cottage on the outskirts of Accra, Irishman Jack McNulty sits at a table writing his memoir. Although his burly Ghanaian houseboy still calls him “major,” his commission in the British army wasn’t permanent (he was termed a “temporary gentleman”). Similarly, Jack has been a short-lived soldier, engineer, civil servant, gun runner, and a U.N. observer. While most of the British have departed from recently independent Ghana, Jack for some baffling reason, has stayed on. Even though he says, “I will go back to Ireland, I must. I have duties there, not least to my children.” The excuses for his hesitation are revealed gradually through flashbacks of his life. Having overcome many impediments in various parts of the world—the sinking of a torpedoed ship, bomb explosions, a jeep’s plunge down a cliff—the ones he doesn’t seem to have surmounted are related to alcohol, gambling, and his relationship with the glamorous Mai. Jack meets her while in college, and although she’s above his station, he manages to entice and marry her.
This is Sebastian Barry’s word-painting of an intricate portrait of an Irishman and his family. The characters will be familiar to Barry’s readers from his earlier novels. In the Gold Coast, while Jack doesn’t quite achieve the eminence of Conrad’s Kurtz, he does interact with the locals and visits villages. The comparative observations of the impact of colonialism in Ghana and Ireland are keenly presented, particularly when Jack is forewarned about the violence in Accra by another Irishman: “It’s like I never left Ireland…take away the black skins… it’s all just Ballymena in the rain.” The novel is written in his typical acclaimed poetic and metaphoric prose, and his use of the first-person and shifted-time structure works well to keep us engrossed. It deserves to win Barry another nomination for the Man Booker Prize. Highly recommended.