Sunday, April 01, 2012
Echo of My Brother's Radio by Murdo McManacall
Perthshire born Murdo McManacall is possibly the most famous member of the loose confederacy called the Scottish Prenaissance, that odd philosophical-literary grouping from the 1940s which believed that consciousness and memory pre-dated birth. While Gregor McSamsa and Darius Dashvell have sunk into relative obscurity, McManacall’s novels have never gone out of print. His philosophy – at once problematic and engaging, is most fully developed in his final novel, the sublime Echo of My Brother’s Radio.
In it, he imagines a world without sound, only the echo of a noise that isn’t being made. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, and it usually takes readers about 148 pages before it begins to make sense. But then it does, usually in a moment of blinding (or should that be defeaning?) realisation, and from there one is taken on a kaleidoscopic aural backdraft of sheer brilliance. The most important aspect of this is the novel’s setting, the imaginary town of Shoosh, based loosely on the author’s own home town of Crieff, in rural Perthshire. Shoosh is a town tormented by stone. Hewn from the local mountains, where it had lain unfettered for millenia, and cut and dressed and forced into labour as domestic houses, the stones rebel, their silent screams gradually coalescing and infiltrating the minds of every one of the town’s residents. There, they flood the locals’ brains with millenia of accumulated knowledge and history, until not a single event that has ever happened anywhere in the world is unknown to them. Naturally, with this unbearable weight of knowledge, the poor people disintegrate and the novel ends with a horrifying, if necessarily quiet, climax in which they melt and drip silently into the River Earn and flow out towards the Tay and the North Sea, where their knowledge expands and infects the whole world, reducing it to a state of silent torment.
There is little hope in any of this. McManacall’s world is a grim and lonely place. But at least there’s no mobile phones or noisy neighbours, so it's not all bad. John Byrne described Echo of my Brother's Radio is "the loudest silence in history", and that sums it up perfectly.