I have a blog now. I can’t decide if that’s good, bad, or potentially catastrophic, but I’m going to run with it.
To recap, I started this blog last week by documenting the beginning of my short story reading. As a writer who doesn’t read enough, I’ve decided to ease back into reading with a number of short stories that I can then talk about on this blog. Of course, this won’t be the only topic I’ll ever discuss. There are an infinite amount of short stories out there, but like any subject there are only so many ways you can talk about it. So the topic will change sometime, when I’ve hit the end of my short story reading list. (Note to self, make actual list.)
I’m continuing this week with one of my personal favorite short stories, “The Sniper,” by Liam O’Flaherty, published almost a hundred years ago in a London publication, “The New Leader.” Is it fair to call this a favorite short story when I’ve read so few short stories? Probably not, but it’s a story that’s stuck with me for so long I can’t help but give it preferential treatment.
“The Sniper,” takes place in Dublin, Ireland in the midst of the Irish Civil War. I’d hesitate to say my knowledge of the Irish Civil War is even surface-level. In this case that’s okay though, because O’Flaherty’s method of storytelling doesn’t require much of any prior information about the war. Only the most minimal and necessary background details are given before readers are dropped into a single night of the war, following the actions of a lone rooftop sniper in Dublin. That’s one of this story’s best qualities, I think, and part of why I love it. In less than three full pages and with almost no backstory, Liam O’Flaherty is able to entrench his audience in the danger of war, in the tragedy of civil war, and the horror of a war zone in a once peaceful city, telling a story both simple and complex that just about anyone anywhere can comprehend. “The Sniper,” is set in Ireland in the 1920s, but its reach is universal, its relevance timeless.
The rest of this post is going to involve spoilers from here on. So if you haven’t read, “The Sniper,” and happen to be interested I’d recommend reading it and coming back. It’s really easy to find online and only takes a few minutes to read. And I’m not exaggerating when I say you don’t want the ending of this story spoiled before you read it. If you have read it or don’t mind spoilers, then feel free to keep reading.
*SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT*
Like I said above, the story covers a single night of the war from the point of view of a sniper, as one would probably expect from the title, operating alone on Dublin’s rooftops. Just as the background of the civil war is left undescribed save for the most essential information, the background of the protagonist is largely unknown to the reader. Not even his name is ever supplied to us. But again, in the context of this story, his name is not necessary. And given the story’s brief length and the author’s writing style, giving him a name might well have diluted the story’s impact. Placed in the same circumstances in the same time period, anybody could be this sniper.
While the sniper’s background is absent, what readers learn about him throughout the story is actually quite significant and works to drive the quick plot forward. Thanks to a brief description at the beginning of the story, we learn the sniper is rather young, which would normally carry the anticipation of inexperience. Not here, however. Dispatching the gunner of an armored car and an informer on the street below him in swift succession and with no hesitancy whatsoever, the sniper shows that not only is he proficient in his role, he’s used to the killing this war demands of him. The horrific carnage he helps to create on Dublin’s onetime peaceful roads passes him by with no apparent effect on him, at least not at first. I’m certain the people the sniper kills in this story are not his first kills.
Aside from being accustomed to killing, the sniper proves himself to be familiar with the dangers of the war that surround him, perhaps too familiar. He takes a chance to smoke a cigarette, drawing the attention of an enemy sniper on the roof across the road. So maybe the inexperience of youth isn’t totally lost to him after all. Following his elimination of the armored car gunner and the informant it is this enemy sniper our protagonist spends the majority of the story engaged with. Even when he’s wounded and pinned down by this enemy sniper, the sniper is noticeably lacking in fear for his own wellbeing, allowing him to maintain his composure and develop a tactic to counter the enemy sniper. It can be inferred that this is both a benefit of his training and a consequence of being numbed to the dangers the war poses.
Only after our sniper defeats and kills the enemy sniper does his attitude change, plunging readers into the tragedy of the civil war. Regretful for killing someone so similar to himself, who occupies the exact same role he has, just on the opposite side of the conflict, the sniper comes to lambast the war, the guilt of his prior actions caused by the fighting seeming to catch up with him. He even goes so far as to throw his sidearm down, swearing off killing. Though he picks the weapon back up a second later, he is enticed to reach the body of the enemy sniper, to see the face of this person so much like him. Braving more enemy gunfire to cross the street, again barely reacting to the horrors and dangers this war has brought to Dublin, the sniper finds the body of the enemy sniper, only to find that the enemy sniper he killed was his own brother.
Thus, in that final sentence, Liam O’Flaherty takes the common saying, that civil war is a war where brother fights brother, and proceeds to slap his audience in the face with it. He leaves them here with no resolution beyond this point, just the awareness that this war has led our protagonist to kill his own family. And with that, O’Flaherty appears to be saying that the dangers, the horrors, and ultimately the tragedies of conflict, especially civil wars like the Irish Civil War, are unified in the notion that war forces people to kill their fellow citizens and human beings, their family.