Carlo Gebler: The Wing Orderly’s Tales. New Island Books. 163 pp.
Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Inside the front cover of this book, you will find the titles of almost 40 books, plays or librettos written by Carlo Gebler. Oddly, none of these has been published in Australia; if the writing in this short collection of loosely connected stories is a typical example of his work, we are poorer for that omission. Gebler, who is a member of Aosdana, is the son of Edna O’Brien, one of Ireland’s truly great writers.
All the stories are set among the prisoner population of the fictitious Loanend prison, outside Belfast.
Every block the same … It’s deliberate. They designed it like that to disorientate the cons, and it does. It’s also downright depressing, dreary and monotonous. Everywhere, in every direction, the same buildings with the same walls of grey concrete, the same bars of grey concrete and the same roofs of grey steel.
It might all lead to dull or grim stories, but Gebler’s characters are all human, damaged certainly, but each with his own story.
Take Smurf, a small-time criminal whose mother had been killed by the Provos and who said that he hated all paramilitaries, whatever their colour. The hard men got their own back when they did not tell him that there was to be a strike at the jail as a way to try to persuade the authorities to segregate the Loyalists from the Republicans. As a result, without knowing it, he broke the strike and was punished by being doused with boiling water to which sugar had been added. The significance of that detail is unclear to this innocent reader, but Smurf ended his days in a psych ward.
Then there is the story of Engine, a Sri Lankan former ship’s engineer, who was given ten years for slashing his Belfast girlfriend. He was a cheerful innocent, treating all his fellow prisoners as if they were his friends. A particularly brutal pair named Tiny and Red Ken, the first not small and the second not socialist, persuaded him to engineer a pair of knuckledusters, which they used to beat up another prisoner. In the subsequent investigation, the hard men were given three months in the Punishment Block, but Engine got four times as much. There he quickly learned that the only way to survive was to be as tough and as brutal as everyone else.
The narrator in all the stories is a prisoner known as Chalky who is paid a small stipend for making breakfast for the four night staff and doing some other small tasks around the prison. The story of Engine is a kind of microcosm of the hopelessness of prison life and has its own moral, one that could be taken as the message of the entire collection. Engine explains to Chalky that
You put on a mask and … after a while your skin and the inside of the mask grow together. They become one. And once that happens, you can’t take the mask off again.
Though this may seem to suggest a set of stories characterised by despair and blackness, there is hope and even black humor to humanise the stories. The book is a reminder that distance has made us poorer for not having met this writer before.