In these times of ongoing austerity, looming water charges, and general disaffection, God knows we could all do with a laugh. Let us raise our glasses therefore, in thanks and salutation, to writer Eamonn Kelly who delivers guffaws a-plenty in The Franz Kafka Centre for the Uninvolved, newly e-published and ready for download to a Kindle near you.
The gist of the novella is best conveyed by Kelly’s own preface which I quote: “The Franz Kafka Centre for the Uninvolved, or The FKCU, was inspired by my time on a work scheme in the Peadar O’Donnell Centre for the Unemployed in Galway, during the 1980s recession. I worked as a social welfare adviser, ‘advising’ unemployed people about their various options, such as, ‘Leave the country quick, while you’re still young’. The book I started writing about these wonderful experiences was abandoned sometime in the Tiger boom when no one wanted to hear about the 1980s recession, myself included. ‘That’s all behind us,’ we said. ‘No use wallowing in the past,’ we said. ‘It’s a whole new Ireland now,’ we said. ‘We’re not going back to all that,’ we said.
“I found the story again last year and I thought it was quite funny, if a little short. So I decided to release it as a Kindle novella. I toyed with the idea of stretching it out into a ‘proper’ book length, but I decided to leave well enough alone. It has a nice short-story completeness and it captures the mood of the time.”
The main character in the story is Sedge, a fretful and frequently perplexed reporter for the Kafka Centre’s Uninvolved News. Through Sedge we get to meet the other personalities and cliques that inhabit the centre and witness their in-house rivalries and resentments, which Kelly portrays in hilarious detail.
“I worked at the Peadar O’Donnell Centre for a year on the scheme and after that did a fair bit of work on its newspaper so I was involved with them for about three years altogether I’d say,” Eamonn tells me over a weekend chat. “Some of the things that happened there were even funnier than what I wrote. There actually was a strike at the centre once, as happens in the story. I remember one staff member going outside and muttering under his breath at the pickets for them to go away because he felt disgraced by the whole thing.”
Kelly captures the comic consequences of the Kafka Centre’s denizens becoming over-politicised, as when he writes: “The wholefood co-op had gone from being a mild green gathering to a forum for the display of political lingo, much of it pure nonsense. This had led in its turn to the development of a lingo usage pecking order at the top of which was beginning to emerge people like John Sapling who was learning to speak in pure acronyms, abbreviations and initials.”
“This was the thing!” he declares when I quote the passage. “I noticed they tended to use the naïve energy of people getting involved in the centre. Ultimately, the effect of them arming everybody with political terms just backfired and that’s what I was trying to illustrate, that’s the main thrust of the story.”
Among the vivid cast of characters, and one of Sedge’s chief tormentors, is hardline feminist Trish, who “drank whiskey like a cowboy” and “subscribed to the idea of splitting the world in two, with men in one hemisphere and women in the other”.
“That kind of thing went down too,” Eamonn says with a laugh. “All those ideas were around. One thing that occurred to me about the whole thing is that the women had been through the Irish educational system as well as the men so they were equally warped!”
The efforts of Sedge and his comrades to galvanise the downtrodden masses has little effect on the outside world.
“You know what Ireland is like,” says Kelly. “If you had a protest march you’d have 20 people on it and maybe a 100 watching it to see who was going to be there. I put a lot of the psychology of that down to our whole post-colonial mentality. It manifests itself in the most peculiar ways - like our football supporters singing as we’re being beaten 6-1 by Germany.
“I was committed at the time. I had emigrated when I was younger, I was like one of those left-overs from the Irish generation of the 1950s in London. I remember thinking ‘What am I doing here?’ I reacted to Brian Lenihan sr’s comments that Ireland wasn’t big enough for everyone and I came back to stay put, as bad as things were, with recession all around.
“Then when the new recession came along all the young people were deciding to emigrate. I find it incredible that they would just abandon the country like that, we need their expertise. It’s my belief that young people now should stay rather than choose emigration, it’s too convenient for the Establishment for them all just to go away.”
While much of the novella’s comedy is focused on the internal shenanigans of the Franz Kafka Centre, some of its funniest pages are those describing the Minister for Adding and Subtracting, John Fogarty:
“The Minister epitomised the ethos of the Party. He believed in absolutely nothing but power…He had done extremely well in the last election, polling more votes than anyone else in the party and riding more women too if the truth be known. He was currently the object of admiration among a group of powerful back-benchers who recognised in the young Minister attractive leadership qualities: he was malleable and likeable, and totally devoid of social visions…He was ideal material to lead the country into the future, the place where countries are always said to be led, but so seldom are.”
A native Dubliner, Eamonn has lived in Galway for many years treating local audiences in that time to such memorable comedies as Religious Knowledge, which ran for some 400 performances, Parental Guidance, Notton Doon, and Frugal Comforts. He was a founding member of the fondly-remembered Comedy Cumann and, in 2012, received the New Fiction Award at the Cúirt Literary Festival. He has also contributed journalism to The Irish Times and Irish Independent, as well as reviews to Books Ireland.
Kelly’s most recent play, The Careerist, has just been long-listed by the BBC Script room. “It’s a Dublin gangster type thing,” he reveals. “I first wrote it about four years ago and developed it over the last while. I sent it to the Abbey last year and they really liked it. It’s structured a bit like Pinter’s The Caretaker.
“I regard it as my first proper professional play, it’s pure craft, it’s not a comedy. It’s about these young guys getting into crime. The way it’s constructed you don’t really know what’s happening for a long time, it keeps wrong-footing the viewer and it took time to do that, I had to write it then leave it and come back a month later to see did it work so I was writing it in instalments. It’s been long-listed now by the BBC and if it’s chosen it will get a London production.”
While we wish Eamonn every success with The Careerist, readers in the meantime can treat themselves to the wonderful satirical delights of FKCU, available from Amazon.