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“The Empty Family” by Colm Tóibín

The Empty Family, Colm TóibínThe collection The Empty Family (2010) includes nine stories in which Colm Tóibín goes over the themes of all his fiction: emigration and return, often to Ireland (which is limited to two places, the surroundings of Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s hometown in County Wexford, and the city of Dublin) and to difficult family relations. Tóibín also deals with haunting past, secrets never told, solitude and the search for love or some kind of family  — a friend, a lover — replacing the one his characters are given.

Six are “Irish” stories, even if partly set in America, while the remaining three take place in Spain. In each there is a homecoming, or it is the past that comes back to the characters. These are not happy occurrences, though. The past is an open wound, impossible to heal, and coming home does not bring consolation, but strife or more solitude. Still, in a few stories, the return home can offer the possibility of a new life. Many of Tóibín’s characters, however, seem unsure whether to take their chances. Often, they are happy just contemplating them, «breathing them in».

Accordingly, not much happens in The Empty Family; most of the stories are made up of reminiscences and reflections. Two of the “Irish” stories are told by a first person narrator who, away from home, in a solitary landscape, muses on Ireland and his dead family. His meditations may be sparked by the full moon of Texas or the rough sea of California and are mentally addressed to some former lover, faraway but still close to the narrator’s mind. In One Minus One, an Irish university lecturer living in the US recalls the days when — six years before — his mother was dying in Dublin. Moving from association to association, he traces the events, buried in his childhood, that led him to grow more and more distant from her. He also becomes aware of the contradictory feelings that the thought of her death still awakens in him: mixed with a sense of guilt and regret for having kept away from her even in her illness, is a feeling of relief. He is not sure whether his charming but cold, distant mother, would have welcomed any attempts on his part to get closer to her. 

In The Empty Family, the title story, the narrator is again a solitary Irishman living in America, who has missed home for a long time and has finally come back. There is no family to which to return, though. What he has longed to find all the while is the Irish sea and an empty house with a view of it, as of his family only graves remain. Looking out at the sea with a telescope, he focuses on a single wave whose rising and falling becomes a paradigm of «what the world is, and our time in it»: «all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervor, to end in nothing on a small strand, and go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy». The fascination of the story lies in the description of the marine landscape and the melancholy tone. «The soft sky and the faint line of the horizon and the way the light changes over the sea», all invites the narrator to indulge in his meditations.

While almost all the narrators of these stories are gay men, Silence and Two Women are told from the perspective of an elderly woman. Both deal with the memory of an old passion, a memory that is difficult or impossible to share with others.

In Two Women, Frances, a Hollywood set dresser in her mid-seventies, returns to her native Dublin to work on a film, but is impatient to leave the city, which she considers grim and provincial. In fact, she is vulnerable to the memories the city revives in her: more than a man there reminds her of her ex-lover Luke, an Irish comic actor whom she lost thirty years before, first to a younger woman and later to cancer. Though their relationship lies so far back in time, his presence is still vivid within her. When she accidentally meets Luke’s late wife during the film shooting, she is deeply moved by the chance of remembering him with somebody who loved him as much as she did. 

The protagonist of Silence has no such possibility. She must keep her illicit passion for herself, while it lasts and even after. Silence — in which Tóibín mingles fact and fiction — is narrated from the point of view of Lady Gregory, a contemporary of the poet Yeats and a patron of the Irish arts. In Tóibín’s story, Lady Gregory appears as a widow who lives in the memory of a love affair she had in the first years of her marriage. She recollects the beauty of her lover, the poet Wilfrid Scawen-Blunt, and how she had to keep their affair a secret, though secrecy felt like «emptiness and absence» to her. She remembers how she tried to make her passion known in an indirect way, through literature. First she wrote sonnets on her secret love, which were published under Scawen Blunt’s name; later, as a widow, she found the courage to recount her affair to Henry James, though in veiled terms, hoping that the great novelist would make a story out of it.

The difficulty with living one’s feelings openly returns in the Spanish stories. Unlike the previous narratives, which dwell on the past, immersed in the penumbras of Ireland, the stories set in Spain are more vital. Their characters are still immigrants or exile returnees, still suspended between the past and the present, but also prepared to make decisions and live their lives.

Carme, the protagonist of The New Spain, is a young woman who returns to Barcelona a few years after Franco’s death, determined to fight the greed of her family and of the new Spain, a greed which is rapidly turning the country’s once unspoiled islands into a huge holiday resort. In Barcelona, 1975, an Irish young gay man gets his sexual education in the Spanish city, where also The Street, the longest story in the collection, is set.

Colm TóibínAfter dealing with Irish immigration to America in his novel Brooklyn, Tóibín focuses on a group of Pakistani immigrants in today’s Barcelona. The Street tells the story of Malik, a shy young man newly arrived from Pakistan. At the beginning, Malik is shown as he struggles to make himself accepted by his abusive boss Baldy and the Pakistani community, fighting off fear and solitude. Little by little he falls in love with Abdul, an older man who shares his room with him and other immigrants. Abdul seems to reciprocate his feelings but when the two are surprised in their intimacy by the irascible Baldy, their love story reach an impasse. There are more difficulties: Abdul has a wife and three children in Pakistan, and it takes time and courage for the two men to accept to live their love. Eventually, Abdul offers Malik to move back to Pakistan with him, and live with his big family, with cousins and relatives who will not become aware of them as a couple.

This story explores life and feelings of people who live in Europe though in a completely separate world. The characters are all Pakistani: only men, worried to be mistaken for terrorists after the Madrid bombings, afraid to be seen reading the Koran, frightened by television images of tortured Iraqi prisoners. The only Spaniards Malik comes into contact with are a couple of doctors in a Barcelona hospital. Kind, clean and reassuring, they use sign language with him and look from another planet.

Like in his other stories, in The Street Tóibín registers facts and thoughts in a simple, unadorned prose, but is able to convey so much: the characters’ solitude and need for love, with all its doubts and uncertainties, the desire to live one’s feelings and share simple pleasures – food, music, a walk by the sea- with a friend or a partner.
This last story in the collection could be perhaps regarded as an arrival point. It is as if the stories in The Empty Family moved from the past, from sterile family relations, to a possible new kind of family. 

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