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The brilliance of Rónán Hession’s Panenka

Edouard Mendy of Chelsea saves a penalty taken by Sergio Aguero of Manchester City during a Premier League match - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY has high praise for author Rónán Hession, a unique talent able to tell gently-paced tales of gentle characters

Rónán Hession is a tonic for our times. In fact, you know what, he might even be the tonic for our times.

I don’t say this lightly. When I read the Dubliner’s debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul, published in 2019 by the Hebden Bridge-based independent publisher Bluemoose Books, it was a little like being let in on a magnificent secret.

Then, last night, I went to bed with a copy of his follow-up Panenka, also from Bluemoose, and read the whole thing from start to finish until dawn seeped around the curtains accompanied by the tentative first chirrups of its chorus. Then I got straight up and began writing this.

It’s rare you’ll find me outright panning a book in these pages. For one thing, there’s enough shouting, finger-jabbing, harrumphing and general tut-tutting in the world as it is without me adding to it.

For another, there are so many good books out there vying for attention why waste time reading and writing about the bad ones? When I recommend books here it is still with a certain professional detachment but underpinned by my belief that because you choose to read this estimable publication you would probably enjoy the book under review too.

Very occasionally a book will come along to which my reaction is so overwhelming and so personal that it would feel wrong to write about it; a book from which I would find it hard to detach myself enough to present a clear analysis of why I am keen to bring it to your attention.

Such was the case with Leonard and Hungry Paul. This was a book like none I had ever read set in a world entirely of Hession’s creation yet one I felt I recognised and one I certainly wanted to live in. It’s a book of warmth and gentleness and a book I loved, properly loved.

Panenka is as good, if not better. A different world, a different story, but still a book into which the reader tumbles headlong. These are books that invoke such a personal response I almost want to keep them to myself, but they are invaluable reminders of the innate goodness of people and the joy and beauty to be found in the ordinary, and heaven knows we could all do with a dose of that right now.

Leonard and Hungry Paul are thirtysomething men. Both are a bit timid. Both struggle to find their place in the wider world but are perfectly happy in the world they have created for themselves, not least because their friendship is at its core, protecting each other from the stresses and anxieties of what lies beyond.

Leonard writes entries for children’s encyclopaedias; work he loves because he can immerse himself in topics that bring him joy and will as a result of his efforts bring joy to generations yet to come. Hungry Paul – we never learn the source of his nickname – enjoys playing board games, ensuring the soundtrack to much of their friendship is the deadened maracas of die in a plastic cup and the clack of plastic pieces counted round a board.

These appear to be simple men leading simple lives but what Hession realises is that there is no such thing as a simple person leading a simple life. Even on an ordinary day on which nothing in particular happens we all live through a succession of decisions, ideas, memories, interactions, journeys, emotions, joys, anxieties, flashes of nostalgia, surges of hope, pangs of sorrow and spasms of despair, all of varying degrees of intensity.

Even those that burn least brightly are important to Hession, prompting one of the warmest and most beautiful evocations of friendship in modern literature. Warmth and compassion lifts out of every page while never becoming cloying or over-sentimental: Leonard and Hungry Paul is not in any way a syrupy read. Hession is far too good a writer just to skip lightly through the novel strewing pansies at us from his hatband: this is a book riddled with grief and love and loneliness as much as friendship and it’s these delicately constructed layers that have made his debut such a word-of-mouth success.

The magnificent secret shared by the book’s early readers has built first into a deal for a US edition and this year the selection of Leonard and Hungry Paul as Dublin’s ‘One City One Book’ title.

Every year the Irish capital celebrates a book connected to the city and this year Hession joins previous heavyweights such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and James Joyce’s Dubliners in being the focus of a series of events and celebrations across Dublin.

The gradual and still growing success of Leonard and Hungry Paul gives its successor Panenka a very difficult act to follow. Hession built such a detailed and believable world for Leonard and Hungry Paul to live in that it must have been tempting to stay within its safe confines a second time. Thank goodness he didn’t. Instead he has created an entirely new world of new characters in a new location and made the whole thing just as vividly convincing as before.

Football fans will recognise the title. Antonín Panenka was an attacking midfielder and a key member of the Czechoslovakia side that reached the final of the 1976 European Championships where they faced West Germany in Belgrade.

After a 2-2 draw the tie went to a penalty shootout and when Uli Hoeness missed West Germany’s fourth spot kick it left Panenka just needing to score to make the Czechs the champions of Europe.

Instead of placing the ball firmly to one side of goalkeeper Sepp Maier, Panenka chose instead to chip the ball delicately into the centre of the goal, gambling correctly that Maier would commit himself to diving one way or the other as he struck the ball. It was cheeky, it was innovative, it was brave, but most of all it was beautiful. Since then, any player attempting to emulate that style of kick penalty, successfully or not, has been performing ‘the Panenka’.

The Panenka is significant enough in the life of the novel’s main character to have become the name by which he is known to everybody, even close family. The book opens with Panenka in the grip of a searing pain in his head he calls the Iron Mask, something that arrives in the night, something he seeks to keep from those closest to him and something that becomes a key part of the narrative.

Panenka is a lost soul, haunted and defined by an incident a quarter of a century in the past. He’s surrounded by lost souls too. His daughter Marie-Thérese has been promoted from the tills to junior management in a local supermarket, alienating her from former friends and colleagues. She is separated from her husband Vincent who runs a downmarket café bar populated by regulars, including Panenka, who haunt it as a surrogate home for a surrogate family. There’s Anthony, whose wife is suffering from a debilitating mental illness that leaves her unresponsive to the point of unconsciousness, and BABA, so called because of his frequent boats that he has two degrees, a man who “had just enough learning to make the other customers at Vincent’s doubt themselves whenever they tried to pronounce a word they’d only seen written down”.

Although Hession is an Irish writer his books, even the Dublin-feted Leonard and Hungry Paul, are not necessarily Irish books. Neither novel specifies a location, both feature broad cultural references and the characters’ speech is light on site-specific idioms. Panenka’s location could be anywhere in Europe. The character names are mostly Anglophonic, but Panenka’s daughter is Marie-Therése, the rival local football clubs are called Seneca and Olimpik and the rough, central district where Panenka lives is called The Crucible. Every time you think you’ve put down recognisable roots in the place, a new aspect of the city is introduced to tear them out again.

It’s a technique that aids the intimacy of both books, their settings ready to be placed wherever we want them and at the same time placed nowhere at all. It helps us identify with characters who live largely on the margins, fostering a sense of physical and psychological displacement. These are characters who are constantly struggling to belong, a disorientation that can only be reinforced when we’ve no idea where we are to start with.

Hession is terrific at depicting the rootlessness that dislodges the lives of all his characters. Panenka, for example, has been in self-imposed exile from both his city and himself for years. “But illness meant dependency,” Hession writes as his protagonist realises his headaches might be something more serious. “It was society’s last chance to push the benefits of membership.”

If there is one unifying aspect of the novel and its characters it’s in the local football team, Seneca, which has known good times and bad but still commands a fiercely loyal following. Those of us who support teams whose trophy cabinet has never exactly required a standing order for silver polish will recognise Anthony’s description of Seneca: “We are a semi-final type of club. You can’t disappoint people without getting their hopes up first, but it’s the whole pattern of taking the odd big scalp, or miraculously finding a gifted player, and then settling back into our usual apathetic form. Following Seneca is an endurance sport that never ends.”

Gently-paced books focusing on gentle characters are among the hardest of all to write in a way that engages the reader. Fortunately Hession’s writing is absolutely beautiful.

Before turning to fiction in 2017 he was for years a regular fixture on the Dublin music scene as Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, playing beautifully crafted, intimate songs called things like What If My Children Get Bullied? and Every Now And Then She Gets A Moment, tiny, wise slices of life whose lyrical concision of empathetic expression extends perfectly to his books.

At the end of a day when Panenka has seen a specialist about his Iron Mask, for example, Hession tells us that, “By now the doctors would be at home with their families or meeting friends or otherwise finding a response to the question about how their day had gone, and in that human way would search for an answer they can live with”.

I can’t think of another author who writes empathy as well as Rónán Hession. His books are populated by good people facing challenges far greater than they might appear and who struggle to belong.

There is as much jeopardy in his work as there is in more obviously challenging literary fiction, but Hession’s warm insight into and deep faith in the human condition smooth these literary journeys through lives more complicated than they seem. “Loneliness is a torch: it can show you things about yourself,” he writes in Panenka, and there’s no-one I’d rather see holding that torch than Rónán Hession.

The choice of title is, I’m sure, no act of whimsy. Antonín Panenka’s penalty kick in 1976 happened in a whirl of uncertainty, high pressure and extreme tension, a clash of nations and political ideologies into which a lank-haired midfielder with sad eyes and a droopy moustache introduced a moment of gentleness, joy and beauty among the madness.

Panenka by Rónán Hession is published this month by Bluemoose Books, price £15. Leonard and Hungry Paul is available from the same publisher, price £9.99.

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