Panenka

There is something gentle about Ronan Hession’s fiction, but that it is not to say that it is comfortable or safe. His characters’ lives are not without difficulties, but these are faced quietly and without fuss, the way most people do, without the adolescent hysteria that is the hallmark of so many other novels. You might even say his novels are ’grown up’, and it no surprise therefore that this is also what they are about. In his second novel, Panenka, the characters, no matter their age, are still ‘growing up’, that is moving away from the past and attempting to forge a future.

The title character, Joseph (known widely as ‘Panenka’ thanks to a footballing career which was curtailed by an such a penalty kick) lives with his daughter, Marie-Therese, and his grandson, Arthur. The novel opens with Joseph suffering from a severe headache of a type he is growing accustomed to:

“These past months, the pressure pain in his head has been coming almost every night, building like an Atlantic wave that roiled within his dreams until it broke and crashed through his sleep, shocking him awake. It manifested as a clamp on his face.”

He calls it his ‘Iron Mask’, a reference as much to the Billy Bragg song as the Dumas novel, as he attempts to ignore the outside world as much as prevent it from seeing him. It’s one of a number of sly allusions, as, for example the Doctor Wolf who diagnoses the inoperable tumour causing the headaches (‘What’s the time, Doctor Wolf?’). (In fact, Joseph’s back story plays out as a mirror image of Handke’s The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety of the Penalty Kick). Joseph, typically, keeps the news to himself; only in a barbershop – newly opened by a woman called Esther as his usual barber is unavailable –   does he momentarily let his emotions show forcing him to abandon his haircut. But just as quickly:

“He had returned to himself.

“He has already closed.”

Joseph returns to the barbers, however, (“I don’t usually do haircuts in instalments,” she tells him) and a friendship with Esther, begins. Joseph finds himself caught between pursuing the relationship and the awareness that there is no long-term future in it; more generally, he must decide whether to open up to the world.

As this story unfolds, Hession also reveals the origins of Joseph’s nickname and his career as a footballer with local team Seneca – brought into focus as, in their current season, Seneca have a chance to return to the top league for the first time since Joseph stopped playing. Football is strangely neglected in literature given its cultural importance and, as with all the best sports writing, the focus here is on the psychology of the game, as we can see in this description of Seneca’s manager:

“Panenka would come to know Cesar Fontaine’s manners as an intrinsic part of his philosophy, which was based on sincerity and consideration as the foundation of all human relationships. He made other people feel interesting. It was charisma.”

Joseph finds himself coming to terms with both his past and his future, but he is not alone in this. His daughter, Marie-Therese, has recently been promoted to a managerial role at work, a role she is not yet comfortable with, managing those she once worked alongside:

“It felt unnatural to her to have to redefine those relationships, outgrow them shed them. It didn’t seem like something a nice person would do.”

Now she must decide whether it would be better for her to move to another store in a different area leaving her father behind. Moving in with him had been her first ‘grown up’ decision:

“…the first big decision she had taken without the support of her mother, which meant that if it broke she would have to fix it alone.”

In contrast, her husband, Vincent’s, pub (whose “previous owner had managed it according to strict standards of parsimony, making a virtue of inertia”) remains a retreat from personal growth. Initially Vincent, like the pub, remains frozen in his own past, believing that Marie-Therese will return to him. Discussions with the regulars about whether to install a television seem part of a wider wariness of any change. It is left to Marie-Therese to suggest that perhaps he, too, needs to face the future in a more grown-up manner:

“Even though you’re a grown man you like to think life is about someone turning around and telling you that you’ve done the right thing, and if somebody tells you that, if I tell you that, well then, under the rules, bad things can’t happen.”

The characters in Panenka are ordinary people with ordinary problems; Hession demonstrates that, if not overcome them, they can at least face them. It is this that makes the novel feel optimistic and, more importantly, true.

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2 Responses to “Panenka”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Novels about ordinary people with ordinary problems are very much my bag, so I will keep this in mind. The focus on debilitating headaches might be a little close to the bone for me; nevertheless, it does sound like my kind of book, certainly in terms of style. (PS I love the way you’ve concluded your post, an excellent observation, Grant!)

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