The Palindrome Club

Sometimes I imagine myself as a member of a palindrome club. We hold our meetings in circular buildings in the Irish town of Navan, or near Ekalaka Lake. Our members are interested in radar, the racecar and the kayak. Our club deed is lodged with an attorney in Wassamassaw. We are called Otto and Dod and Hannah and Eve, and our meetings consist of telling stories that all end at the beginning. Palindrome —a word or phrase that makes equal sense read backward or forward —comes from the Greek ‘running back again’ and has occurred in verbal words plays for over two thousand years. The first palindromic sentence in English appeared in 1614: ‘Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel’. Even if the ‘&’ in the middle is a bit of a cheat, you have to admire the author for trying. There were no crosswords in those days and Scrabble hadn’t yet been invented. Since then, writers of English have strained over their quills to come up with a circular phrase that is cleverer than the one that went before. The sole palindrome attributed to Shakespeare — ‘Emit no evil; live on time’ — is said to be part of Polonius’s original speech in Hamlet. ‘Norma is as selfless as I am, Ron’, is ascribed to W.H. Auden, whilst ‘Go Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog!’ is the title of a book by Jon Agee. Generations of schoolchildren have grown up being able to say, ‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’. Moving along the scale of scatology is ‘Knits stink!’ followed by ‘Sex elf flexes’ and ‘To lay a pig I pay a lot’. The 19-letter Finnish word saippuakivikauppias, meaning 'a dealer in caustic soda,' is the world’s longest known palindromic word. However, the simpler the better, as far as I’m concerned. For example, ‘a man a plan a canal, panama’ is both clever and elegant, a bit like the Panama Canal itself. It is the circular nature of storytelling that I’m most drawn to, stories that take us on a round trip and end where they began. Life is a circular journey: we step off it in much the same helpless state as that in which we stepped on. These circular rhythms are embedded in our psyche. We say, ‘what goes around comes around’, by which we mean that one’s actions, whether good or bad, will have consequences. It’s another way of saying, ‘you reap what you sow’. I had this deep circularity in mind when I was writing my historical novel, ‘The Sea and the Silence’. Iz, a young and hopeful heroine, is brought by her new husband to live in a lighthouse, an outpost from where the revolving seasons are graphically apparent. As her life unfolds, the theme of history repeating itself, often with great irony, not to mention, cruelty, is omnipresent. And the narrative structure of this love story reflects these themes: Iz chooses to begin her story with the second half of her life; she then concludes by telling us how she got there in the first place. Although the story begins in the 1940s, the themes of love and loss revolving in a great cartwheel of chance and fate are as relevant today as they were back then. It was only when I had finished the novel and was looking for a suitable quotation that I thought of using a palindrome. The one I chose, which comes from Ancient Rome, is said to have been set down by a writer who was mesmerised by the circular motion of moths around the flames of a candle. He wrote, ‘We go in circles by night and are consumed by fires’. His ageless palindrome, of course, was in Latin:

IN GIRUM IMUS NOCTE ET CONSUMIMUR IGNI