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‘The Third Party’ is a charm

by David Burleigh

THE THIRD PARTY by Glenn Patterson, Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 2007, 169 pp., £7.99 (paper)

An unnamed businessman and a well-known novelist, both from Belfast, meet while checking into a hotel in Hiroshima. The recognition of a shared home, so far away, is awkward and unwilling, but over the coming days they cannot avoid each other. As the novel opens, the businessman, rising from a fitful sleep, sees an eagle in flight from his lofty bedroom window. It might be a portent of something.

Glenn Patterson, the author of this intriguing story, is himself a native of Belfast and has written about it extensively before. But “The Third Party,” though it involves two Irish characters, is set in Hiroshima. It is Patterson’s seventh novel, and something of a departure. It owes its origin partly to a visit to Japan he made a few years ago, with a short stay in Hiroshima, a place whose name resonates uniquely.

The events of “The Third Party” begin at breakfast, and pursue the two men through a single day. The nicely ambiguous title refers specifically to the party that comes after the party that follows the first party, which in this case is a reception for the guests of a university conference. The novelist, also nameless, is referred to as Ike (from “icon”), and is famous for writing on the Irish “Troubles.” He has been invited to a gathering on the theme “Writing out of Conflict.”

“I didn’t make a habit of seeking out Belfast connections when I was abroad, but Hiroshima was a long way from home,” thinks the businessman, before getting drawn into a strange entanglement with the writer. It is the last day of his trip, and he is hoping for a chance to meet the mayor: “Only conference-goers and mayor-stalkers stayed in Hiroshima more than a day or two.” The pursuit of separate desires pushes the two men closer than they would like to be, and both get what they are looking for ultimately.

The tragedy that befell Hiroshima tolls in the background, lending edge and perspective to the encounter. There are a couple of moving set pieces in the Atomic Bomb Museum, one of which shifts the attention to another visitor. There are meetings with students and with other delegates to the conference, and a wonderful evocation of a fruitless bus ride out into the country, and the long wait to get back. There is the brief interruption of a bomb scare, and a hilarious second party, in a Japanese izakaya or drinking establishment, where the assembled characters get drunk. The story ends with a mysterious leap in the dark that sends the reader, baffled, back to the beginning.

This cleanly written, dry and disabusing novel looks at some important questions in a sidelong way. Mainly these have to do with responsibility and truth, manifested in the actions of the two main characters, and what they are separately trading on, or in.

Patterson creates an entertaining portrait of the bibulous and egotistical author, a seemingly irrelevant figure to the world of international business deals. But the confidence of business practice is shockingly undermined by later revelations.

The book avoids being a tale about the exotic East. (“My in-flight movie en route to Tokyo was ‘Lost in Translation.’ I mean, come on,” thinks the protagonist, wanly nursing hopes of sexual conquest.) Rather, it is a shrewd, amusing and well-observed story, deftly assembled from its varied parts. I liked especially the acerbic exchanges between the two men from Belfast.

Patterson has done his homework well on people and place, and the details all seem right. It is fortunate indeed that his first visit to Japan should have been to such a significant location.

For more information on “The Third Party,” visit: www.blackstaffpress.com