Historical novel explores how Ireland past shapes Ireland present; A Curious Street, by Desmond Hogan. New York: George Braziller. 194 pp. $12. 95.
-30 ''History,'' Stephen Dedalus tells the English schoolmaster Mr. Deasy in Joyce's ''Ulysses,'' ''is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.''
That view of history seems particularly appropriate to the Irish sensibility, obsessed as it is with a long past of division and defeat. Desmond Hogan, a playwright and novelist born in the west of Ireland, is very much obsessed with that obsession. And his fictional exploration of how the Irish past shapes, and cripples, the Irish present suggests as well a broader concern with the weight of history in general. ''All moments are haunted by other moments,'' one of the characters in ''A Curious Street,'' Hogan's third novel, says. ''There is an ancestry to our every act.''
The nightmare of Irish history reaches as far back as history goes and as far forward as the sectarian violence in contemporary Ulster, the world in which Jeremy Hitchens, the narrator of ''A Curious Street,'' lives. The novel is less concerned with the crisis of Northern Ireland, however, than with the history of division that lies behind it. By moving in and out of the memories of its various characters, all of them obsessed with the past, and by crossing and recrossing the boundaries of different historical periods, ''A Curious Street'' insists on the need, in Ireland anyway, to keep the background in the foreground.
The chief legacy of that background is division, a disturbing heritage that flows through the lives of all the characters in this novel, and through the very veins of Jeremy Hitchens. Born in England of an English father and an Irish mother, and spending most of his youth in Athlone (a town on the Shannon River, the traditional dividing line between western and eastern Ireland), Hitchens is torn between two sets of historically opposed loyalties. And when he decides to join the British Army - taking, as he says, the side of Cromwell - he is, ironically, dispatched to Belfast.
Hitchens is also a would-be writer, and this novel is particularly concerned with the struggle of the modern Irish writer against the pressures of both a dividing past and a constraining present. The novel's central character is, appropriately enough, a ghost from the past, a young Stephen Dedalus figure named Alan Mulvanney, who once, much earlier in the century, was loved by Hitchens's mother, and whose shadowy presence haunts Hitchens throughout the novel.
Born in 1919 in the midst of a different set of Irish troubles, Mulvanney wrote and then stuck in a drawer a novel that, like ''A Curious Street,'' is preoccupied with the violence of Irish history, specifically Cromwell's murderous conquest of Ireland in the 17th century. Mulvanney's compulsive concern with the English-Irish conflict, embodied in his failed novel, intensifies Hitchens's own ambiguous feelings of identity. And the stain of Mulvanney's failure (he never wrote another book, and drifted through a life of obscurity only to end up mysteriously shot in the head on the banks of the Shannon in 1977) is also passed on to Hitchens, along with so much else of Ireland's troubled past.
As all of this suggests, ''A Curious Street'' is an ambitious novel, and Hogan's complex handling of layers of time and memory is admirable, if at times vexing. But what prevents this novel from being the successful tour de force that it might have been is Hogan's insistence on writing always at the top of his lungs. His prose is unrelentingly poetic, and the result of his effort to maintain a high pitch of lyric intensity over 194 pages is a narrative voice that quickly becomes tiresome, that reaches painfully, even embarrassingly, beyond its grasp.
Nonetheless, ''A Curious Street'' does demonstrate how far modern and post-modern fictional techniques can take the traditional genre of the historical novel. And it does, on the whole, accomplish what Alan Mulvanney tried to achieve in his account of Ireland's bloody 17th century, and what all artists, in this century at least, must strive for - ''the resolution,'' in Jeremy Hitchens's words, ''of negation into construction, of an abyss of loneliness into words on a page.''