Nothing to Say and Pasteis de Nata

“Best to sound like half an idiot that knows a quarter of something, than a whole idiot that knows fuck-all.” – Nothing to Say

Mannix Flynn’s semi-autobiographical account of childhood in 1960s Dublin and at the industrial school in Letterfrack, Co. Galway, is both harrowing and amusing, while offering the reader a unique insight into the Irish culture and attitudes of the day. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of Gerard O’Neil, one of fourteen children. He lives with his siblings and mother, Chrisso, in a small tenement flat in inner-city Dublin. Gerard skips school and is involved in petty theft. The authorities arrest him for stealing a push bike and he is mercilessly and arbitrarily sent to Letterfrack where there is a school run by the Christian Brothers for young boys who are considered delinquents.

At the school, Gerard witnesses the brutality with which the Christian Brothers treat the inmates, often beating them up without the slightest provocation and forcing them to undertake hard physical labour in extreme conditions. There are moments of sexual intercourse between the boys as well as of sexual advances by adults on the inmates. These are not easy subjects to read about. However, the fact that they are narrated through the eyes of a child strangely mitigates the events and allows the reader to fully comprehend the awfulness of the situation while acknowledging the sense of community that was created between the students at Letterfrack.

There were aspects of the novel that I didn’t appreciate. The narrative voice, though instructive, can be inconsistent and volatile. The appearance of a sexually abusive character who goes by the name of James Joyce also screams of writer who is trying too hard to be subversive. Nonetheless, Nothing to Say is a significant literary achievement not to be dismissed.

I read Nothing to Say immersed in a fog of Christmas euphoria, an interesting juxtaposition in and of itself. Returning to Brussels has allowed me to indulge in all the culinary delights that the city has to offer. I recently happened across Forcado, a brilliant Portuguese café on Chaussée de Charleroi that serves the most decadent pasteis de nata (small egg pastries made with vanilla and cinnamon) I have ever tasted.

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