Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song was the winner of the 2023 Booker Prize in November 2023. He was awarded a cash prize of £50,000 and the trophy. The novel is an exhilarating, propulsive and confrontational portrait of a country – and an ordinary family – on the brink of catastrophe.
On a dark, wet evening in Dublin, scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack answers her front door to find the GNSB on her doorstep. Two officers from Ireland’s newly formed secret police want to speak to her husband. Things are falling apart. Ireland is in the grip of a government that is taking a turn towards tyranny. Soon Eilish finds herself caught within the nightmare logic of a collapsing society – assailed by unpredictable forces beyond her control and forced to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.
Lynch said about his book, “Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.”
Novelist Esi Edugyan, Chair of the judges, said, “We feel unsettled from the start, submerged in – and haunted by – the sustained claustrophobia of Lynch’s powerfully constructed world. Lynch pulls off feats of language that are stunning to witness. He has the heart of a poet, using repetition and recurring motifs to create a visceral reading experience. This is a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave.”
In a conversation with Scroll, the newest Booker Prize winner elaborated on his novel’s attempt at “radical empathy”, writing as a father of young children, and why we are gripped by a “failure of imagination”.
To start off, very interestingly, in one of your interviews you said that Prophet Song is set in the future. So, is there anything in contemporary Irish society or politics that makes you worry that whatever is happening in your book might turn out to be true someday?
The book doesn’t say when it is set. What I said was it might be set in the future. Or it could be set in a counterfactual reality. I wouldn’t say the book is written as a warning about Irish society though one can take that reading from it because the energies that lead to an outcome like Prophet Song are always there in a society.
They’re always bubbling underneath the surface. So it would be very naive for us today to pretend that it doesn’t exist and the thing is, what’s happening in Prophet Song, is happening in the world right now. The idea that this book is dystopian is false precisely because anything that’s happening in the world right now cannot be speculated. Fiction cannot be speculated. So the book is a container – a container that somehow holds all these narratives within it. I’ve had people tell me that it speaks to Ukraine. I’ve had people tell me it speaks to Gaza. Therefore, it is also a demonstration of the logic of events, from the point of view of somebody trapped inside it.
How does a society collapse? What’s the outcome on the personal level? What’s the personal cost of events for people who live through these things? I believe that most of us assume always that life will continue as it is – and we don’t notice the temperature in the pot of water increase. It’s very slow when it changes and sometimes it’s too late when we notice. You get to a tipping point and then the damn thing has its own momentum. To me, it’s a complex book. It’s looking at all these things and more.
The point about Gaza is interesting because you won the prize on November 26 and we were one month into the attack on Gaza. And at the time, people in the West were being punished for speaking up in support of Palestine. Your book essentially says that this is not the first time and it won’t be the last when a similar crackdown happens.
Every time there’s a war, we realise something is really wrong with the world. These things are going to keep happening. It’s kind of an endless cycle. I consider the book a lament. A lament of grief for what we are and what we do. That is what Eilish [the protagonist] recognises in the novel. After she’s been through the horrors, she realises that the end of the world is a local event. It comes to your city, it comes to your town, it knocks on your door, and meanwhile, everybody else in the world watches it on the news.
This is important because even though we watch the news, but we are not truly affected by what we see. The spectacles and the image that we are bombarded with day after day no longer have the power to move us. So we erect a wall of resistance against the spectacles. I wanted to get past that with this novel. I wanted to use the power of fiction to get past the self-defences because we suffer from a failure of imagination when we consider these events.
We always assume, first of all, well, it would never happen to me. And we assume that if that was me, I would know when to get out. And we assume that the people who become refugees, somehow it is kind of their fault. All of these things are nonsense. Prophet Song is also trying to explore these kinds of dilemmas.
You say that Prophet Song is an experiment in “radical empathy”. What do you mean by that?
Well, that’s what I’m talking about when I say that there’s a failure of imagination when we consider world events. There’s a failure of imagination when we see, for example, Syrian refugees taking boats to Europe.
There’s that thought of, well, maybe they deserve it or maybe they made some mistakes. There’s a failure to truly understand what it takes. I think leaving home, leaving where you live, is the most difficult decision that anyone will ever make – to get onto one of those boats with your children.
If you’re an educated person, if you’re an intelligent person who’s lived all your life in one place, you are deeply rooted in that place. Your identity is formed by your relationships with your children, with your family, with your home, with your career. So for somebody to truly leave, what’s required, is that all those things have to be unplugged. Everything is taken away from you. A lot of fiction today has looked at the refugee crisis from the point of view of the journeys from the boats onwards or the refugee crisis – the point of view of being in a new place. But I don’t think fiction has sufficiently explored what leads to this displacement in the first place. So that’s where the idea of empathy comes in, not sympathy. Empathy, is a different thing entirely.
You worked on this novel through the pandemic and you had a child and there was a health scare. I want to know how one stays focused on a creative project when so many things are happening. I don’t think many men are asked this question, but how does one be a father in such circumstances?
I think I belong to a generation, certainly in Ireland, of men who are thoroughly modern. They are decidedly empathetic and want to have it all. We want to be involved with our children. We want to be the dad that the children actually want to have around, rather than the stern, cold, distant father of the past. So we are taking on roles that traditionally women did exclusively. In the modern world, and certainly in Ireland, everybody has to work now. That’s just to afford to live. Mothers and fathers have to work. And so trying to be a dad, balance work and life, is challenging. But to do so, to be an artist, is especially difficult – to have an artistic space in your imagination, where you can talk or listen to. Your book is present in your thoughts.
It’s very challenging when you’ve got small kids. I had long COVID, so there were many days for over a year where I just couldn’t write. And that was very, very challenging. But you know, when you’re full of a book, you’re full of a book. It’s inside you, the damn thing! You have to get it out. So I just kept going. I have two kids and it was a challenge. But life is a challenge. Life is never easy. There’s always something.
There are many times in the book when Eilish shows a steadfast belief in democratic values. She says, This cannot happen to me. We are allowed to go out and march and speak up. I thought it was interesting that no matter what is written in our constitutions, it is all ultimately transactional and maybe even temporary. Would you say that through Prophet Song you are trying to tell your readers that do not trust your government no matter what?
I see it more as an examination of denial. The line, this cannot be allowed to happen here, is really important. Eilish consistently sides with optimism, believing that everything should continue as it was. We all do this in our daily lives. I think we’re hardwired to be optimistic. And I think to the extent that it has become a bias when we look at established liberal democratic countries and we see leaders emerging who threaten to fatally undermine the democratic values of these countries. We say to ourselves, ah, but that country will be fine. They won’t be allowed to acid-strip the political values of that country. And that is exactly what happens.
I think that we’ve had 60 years, or thereabouts, of this particular kind of democracy. And we’ve gotten very used to it and we think this is the norm. But it’s not the norm. The norm is what’s in Prophet Song. It’s, you know, what’s waiting for us. Unless we actively work against it.
Then there’s the element of fear. Just throughout the novel. And it is also a tool that is wielded by the government to keep the citizens in check. But very interestingly, with Gaza, we are seeing that people are no longer silent. They want to speak up. The wheels are perhaps turning. How do you think this watershed moment comes for us individually?
I think the facts speak for themselves here. I think you have a situation where over one per cent of the population has been killed. Innocent civilians have been killed. And that, for most people, is intolerable. Many of us were initially decidedly for Israel, but we’ve watched how Israel has decided to cut the head off a snake by bombing a field.
That’s not tolerable. What we see, what we hear, what we read is abominable. There’s no other word for it.
At the very beginning, you said the novel might be set in the future. In a sense, I would say the novel is timeless. I could read it anytime and it would make sense to me. So I have a feeling that you might have written a classic. What I mean to ask at this point is, how does one write a timeless novel?
Thank you. You don’t sit down to write a classic and I don’t know if Prophet Song will indeed turn into one. I don’t know if it has those qualities. In fact, nobody will know. In 50 years I’ll be dead. So I for sure will never know.
But there’s an old Taoism expression about when you aim for the bullseye for fun, you hit the target as an archer but when you shoot to win a prize, you go off target. So as a writer, you don’t write to win prizes and you don’t write to write classics. You write to write the best book that answers your particular obsessions and satisfies your particular requirements for storytelling and your ideas about what art should be.
After that, it’s out of your hands. As a writer, you fold the paper swan, you put it in the river and you let it go.
And now that you’ve won the Booker, do you think there’s any danger of your career still ending? In one of your interviews, you said you were worried that Prophet Song might be fatal to your writing career.
The Booker Prize fixes a lot of things. It makes it easier to stay in the game. What it makes difficult is actually writing. The next book, that is. Everyone I met said that when you win the Booker you lose a year of your life. I was talking to Damon Galgut [winner of the 2021 Booker Prize] the other day and he said he’s lost two years. I find that petrifying!
This conversation took place at the 2024 Jaipur Literature Festival.