Short Story #14. An Snámhaí (Katherine Duffy)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: This is the story that I read to replace the Kafka one that I abandoned earlier this month.

Story: An Snámhaí, by Katherine Duffy.  This is an Irish language story (An Snámhaí = “The Swimmer”) which I downloaded free through

Comments: I learned Irish going to school (as does more or less everybody who goes to school in Ireland), but have barely used it since then.  Although it is officially the first language of the country, it’s possible to live without ever needing to use it.   A Celtic language, completely unrelated to Latin-based languages, Irish is usually considered “difficult”.  I’d been thinking that I should dip into something contemporary, to see how much I remember and whether I can still manage to read it.  What better for this than a short story?  So I tried – and was delighted to find that I could indeed read and follow it.  I didn’t understand every word at the first reading, but I certainly got the drift.  I read it a second time with the dictionary beside me.

This is a mid-life crisis story.  The unnamed narrator (let’s call him N.) is on holiday with his partner, Jo; it’s their first holiday without their son, who has persuaded his parents to let him go to a summer camp this year.  N. sees a report in a newspaper about an old friend of theirs, Eamann – N., Jo and Eamann had been buddies in art college, but have drifted apart over the years.  Eamann has now won a prestigious art prize, which will gain him fame and wealth.  For some reason that he can’t explain, N. does not tell Jo about this.  Instead, he tells her that at the end of the holiday, he’d like to stay on in this seaside resort for another week, while she goes home.  He’s enjoying himself, and there’s no need to rush back to his business which is not doing so well in these times anyway.

N. sets himself the challenge (again without telling Jo) of swimming out to a small island, about half a mile from the shore.  He is a strong swimmer, and trains a little more, and one evening sets out to accomplish this swim.  Quite a bit of the narration is in the form of the thoughts in his head during this swim.  He makes it to the island, though he does experience a bit of a cramp on the way.  The story ends with him sitting on the island, with the lights which are beginning to come on in the houses on the shore beaming their congratulations to him.  And, of course, with the knowledge that he must now swim back again.

Eamann, it seems, represents what N. might have been, but didn’t become.  Eamann was travelling the world, sending postcards from exotic places back to his friends, while they were setting down together, having their son, being preoccupied with buying a house and caring for it and for the garden.  Eamann is a producing artist, while N. worked first in advertising and now as a buyer for art collectors.  Eamann has achieved wealth, while N’s business is precarious due to the economic downturn.   We learn that sometime recently N. has actually bought a piece of Eamann’s work, an abstract picture which now hangs in his study (Jo wanted it in the sitting room, N. prevailed by saying he’d buy another piece to hang there, but now remarks wryly that they probably won’t be able to afford it, because the price of Eamann’s work will sky-rocket).

So: failed dreams, a marriage which may be showing a few first signs of wear and tear, a lack of satisfaction – of all of which N. is only barely conscious.  The self-imposed challenge of swimming to the island, to prove something to himself, though he knows not what… a veritable mid-life crisis.  We are left to imagine for ourselves the possible outcomes… Does N. get back to the shore safely?  What does he tell Jo?  What are his next moves?

I really enjoyed this story, and was intrigued by the main character.

I also really enjoyed connecting with the Irish language again, particularly with some contemporary work (this story was published in 2010).  I haven’t been able to find out anything else about the author, but I’ll keep my eyes open.  The story won an award in a competition organised by Orieachtas na Gaeilge in 2011.