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“Swimming through the ashes of another life”: Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes

Dear reader,

Allow me to start with an apology, it’s been two months since my last conf- column. In the span of these two months, a lot has happened, as it often does. A new COVID variant, a new year, a few new books and stories and a few new losses and gains. If you’re reading this, I hope you are well and safe, and just as much in a mind blowingly confused state about colleges reopening after almost two years, as I am. But that’s enough for a catch up. This month we have a very important discussion to get into. It’s about the tragic metaphor of ashes, child narrators from ‘broken’ homes and the insincere melancholy we feel when we read about poverty while sitting in a high-end coffee shop. We are talking about Frank McCourt’s phenomenally heartbreaking and yet incredibly hilarious 1996 memoir, Angela’s Ashes.

Without really being overdramatic, there’s something that has to be said about this book at the onset. It’s an essential reading material/experience. Does it ever happen to you that you read a particular passage from a book, and you have to slowly close the book… look into the space in front of you (without really looking), and let the words wash over you? You are awaiting the swift yet immensely slow wave that hits: drenching you to the bone, all through the force of images, letters, syllables, words. In Angela’s Ashes, such waves hardly ever recede. And these waves are not necessarily liquid or semi-liquid. But rather, often as weightless as grey ash and brown dust: waves, of course, made of memories and pasts. There is a lot of grief and unfair loss in the life of the McCourts, and despite all that, there are still moments of pure joy and gratitude. The book begins with this passage:

‘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.’

Within the first four-five lines, Frank McCourt gives away the entire premise. Clearly, in the book, Frank McCourt writes about his ‘miserable childhood’, going back to the memory of his four-year-old self, and extracting from those lost days, stories, dialogues, sighs and tears. The masterful narration and style will make you think why ever is science obsessed with notions of time travel. We have always had the formula in words, right in front of us. Interestingly, the title of the book has a temporal ring to it as well. The proper noun in the title is the child-narrator’s mother, and the ashes are both the direct remains of fires, as well as the indirect remnants of a lost landscape of the past – the past, as it seems, is best captured in that word, ashes.

On the surface, it is a book about a childhood spent in absolute penury, but through the many episodes that detail this state of (non)existence, McCourt also documents the discovery of the most impossible of joys in the littlest of things, and in turn (although it seems blatantly inappropriate to use this word) inspires.

For instance, as we are talking about ashes, a persistent issue of the book is to keep the fire going. Fire, both within a battered fireplace in the McCourt’s room-house in Limerick, Ireland, and also, seemingly the fire of life; indeed cold ashes collect only when the wood is entirely spent, as long as you keep adding fuel, the crackle lasts and warms. The challenge to keep the fire going is the most advanced, since in the throes of total penury, sometimes fire is not only comfort and warmth, but even meals and sustenance itself. In a few episodes in the book, McCourt and his younger brother Malachy both haunt the lonely, bitingly cold Irish streets at night to collect fuel for the fire at home – discarded coals from houses and small factories. In other words, the persistence to keep the fire going, is to avoid being buried/smothered in/by ashes. Oddly inspiring? One might be expected to wonder at this point, what’s so striking about such descriptions of poverty? In a country where almost a quarter of the population is sustaining themselves with an income (far) below the poverty line, these are not just descriptions, but realities one witnesses – and perhaps even lives through – every day. Maybe the answer lies in a wise and amusing nugget of fascinated disbelief a friend shared with me about Ashes: ‘Before I read this book, I could not have imagined that white people could be poor!’ Born in Brooklyn during the Depression and forced to return to Limerick at the age of four, the narrator of the book (McCourt himself) starts describing his circumstances from the first moment his memory serves. But his circumstances are wholly unique and crisis-ridden in an unrelenting manner, by his own admission:

‘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.’

The achievement of the book is simple. It is not about homogenising the tragicomedy of life, but rather, a conscious and composed assessment of a social reality that tests each individual unit within its ambit in distinct ways. This is as much a book about a miserable Irish childhood, as it is a book about the uncategorised, un-national miserable childhood. It is a sharp critique of how the socio-politico-economic elements abandon the human; a critique of the impossibility of the American dream, the gut-wrenching abuses of alcoholism, and the self-possessed imperialism of ‘national’ choices that benefit from exploiting the economic gulf between the rich and the poor. And yet, it is also about hope and unity, and kindness and compassion. And most impressionably, it is about education, because how else does one break the vicious cycles, if not with the imitable power bequeathed by language? Maybe it’s reasonable to end with this famous quote from the book:

‘You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.’

This is not a vacation read by any account. The internet calls it one of the most depressing books ever. But in the same breath, it is also called one of the most heartbreakingly real and warm books you’ll ever read. Read it, please.

By Kartik Chauhan

(Probably) pursuing a postgraduate degree in English, Kartik is a strong proponent of multiplicities: within and without. Interested in poststructuralisms and postmodernisms, he finds a slippery respite in words – his own and those he reads. Alternatively, he is also very suspicious of ‘isms’. Adding everyday to an ocean-like to-be-read pile of books, he is content with all things literary. Occasionally, he goes out, only to return home with more books. For his book reviews and poetry, you can find him on Instagram @karkritiques. Editor’s Note: The column, while being about books, poetics and authors, will possibly contradict itself, taking after language, which is significantly more eccentric than any writer/the columnist. More often than not, it would just be a young gusher of good books. It remains to be.