The Life of a Useless Man

Published in An Phoblacht/Republican News, 1992

Gypo Nolan and his friend and comrade, Frankie McPhillip, are dismissed from the Organisation for carrying out unofficial operations – in McPhillip’s case for shooting dead the secretary of the right-wing Farmers Union, an action which results in a bounty being put on his head.

Cut off from sympathisers, from all means of support, Gypo lives a hand-to-mouth existence. Finally, out of depression, because of poverty and hunger, because of the simple reason that he has no money to buy a bed for the night, Gypo goes to the cops, informs them of Frankie’s whereabouts, and collects the £20 reward.

Yevsey Klimkov, an orphan, is apprenticed to the owner of a shop, a grubby little man, who sells prohibited books from under the counter to students and radicals and then informs on his customers to the police. When the bookseller is murdered the confused, lonely Yevsey is befriended by an old police officer who holds ‘radical’ views. Yevsey accidentally betrays the officer through loose talk, by repeating some of his opinions. The Security Department arrests the old officer and the terrified Yevsey who is thrown in a dungeon and only released after he agrees to work as a spy and an informer.

Two fictional stories from over 60 years ago – one from Ireland (The Informer), the other from Russia (The Life of a Useless Man). The subject: the act of betrayal, the effects of treachery on the mind of the informer. Given our knowledge and familiarity with the subject there is very little in O’Flaherty’s and Gorky’s novels with which we can take issue.

Gypo, spending the money foolishly and wildly and bringing attention to himself, still manages to convince himself for a short while that maybe it was ‘Rats’ Mulligan who informed on Frankie. Gypo had “completely forgotten the ponderous fellow in the little tattered, round hat who had gone into the police station.”

Later, even after he is revealed as being the informer and is being pursued by members of the Organisation (which in the interim had forgotten its differences with Frankie) Gypo doesn’t run into the arms of two approaching policemen.

“On the contrary, he still regarded them as his enemies. His mentality had not yet accustomed itself t the change that his going into the police station that evening had wrought in his condition. To his understanding he was still a revolutionary. He was not at all conscious of being an informer, or a friend of law and order…”

Yevsey admires the revolutionaries, people who are “convinced of the victory of their dreams”, but he lives in fear of being discovered by them. He just does what he is ordered to do, or so he consoles himself. But occasionally he becomes zealous. Sometimes when he feels that the information he has gathered is insufficient he makes up the deficiency from  his own imagination.

An agent provocateur is pointed out to him as the exemplary model: “He’s one of our crack guard, a real expert,” he is told. “He denounced 12 bombmakers, helped them make the bombs himself. They wanted to blow up a minister. He taught them how to use them, and then denounced them.”

Spurned on by this example, Yevsey encourages his girlfriend, his cousin and various radical comrades, to produce illegal pamphlets. He supplies them with the printing facilities and then has them arrested. His reward is 25 roubles for sending seven people to prison.

Money for human meat has to be a sort of butchery. Sandy Lynch, the informer who put myself and several comrades in jail, was rewarded £50 for sending a 51-year-old man, Paddy Murphy from Ardoyne, to jail for five years. Like Yevsey, he encouraged a relative, in Lynch’s case his own brother Billy, to go on an INLA operation and then squealed on him. God only knows what nonsense he also invented and gave to his handlers. In the style of an agent provocateur he proposed to the IRA that it make up a bomb and place it on the roof of the Unionist MP Cecil Walker’s armoured car, to kill him and his bodyguards. The IRA were not interested in killing Cecil Walker and turned down the plan. Lynch then hijacked a motorbike to encourage the IRA to carry out the operation. Then he told the RUC that the IRA was planning to blow up Cecil Walker! He got paid a few hundred pounds for this information about an operation in which the IRA had shown no interest.

When the IRA caught up with Lynch he claimed that the RUC had threatened to have him killed by loyalist assassins unless he worked for them. When the RUC raided the house in Belfast in which Lynch had been held he, like Gypo, didn’t rush into their arms. It was as if, “on the contrary, he still regarded them as enemies.”

Gypo’s life as an informer is a one-off incident. Short-lived, to be more correct. It leads to him being mortally wounded and to his melodramatic death inside a chapel at the feet of Mrs McPhillip who forgives him for her son’s killing.

Yevsey eventually has to tell someone about his double life and, ironically, he confesses to one of the men, a writer, whom he had been assigned to spy on. “Suddenly he beheld himself divided into two – the man who had lived and acted, and the man who was able to stand aside and talk about the first as about a stranger… the story of his life unravelled smoothly and easily like a ball of grey thread. The telling of it freed the frail little soul from the dirty and cumbersome rags of its experiences…”

Shortly afterwards, the students and revolutionary leaders are released on amnesty and Yevsey’s nerves desert him. He tries to focus clearly on the “cruel masters of his life” who trained him to cunningly hunt down human souls.

Not as an act of ingratiation towards those whom he formerly stalked, or as an act of redemption, but out of personal revenge, Yevsey makes a botched attempt to assassinated the police chief and then runs off to find a tree with a branch strong enough to bear his weight, in the same way perhaps that Judas Iscariot said ‘sorry’.

But even if today’s informer cannot muster the courage to tell someone about his double life, or go to the tree, or even if an informer remains anonymous, he still swings from the tree’s bough every single day and every single night of the remainder of his useless life.