We sit up straight and feel excited in that moment in the movie when the figure appears behind the boulder on the hill and narrows his eyes as the wagons and horses below make their journey westward through new and unmapped territory. We know now there will be action, there will be arrows and bareback-riding and a lot of shooting.
The white man, moving slowly with his language and his almost innocent need to make fences, will have reason and technology on his side. The redskin will have an aboriginal relationship with the landscape; he will have a language that the microphone can barely pick up. Once the territory has been mapped by the white man, the redskin language will live on only in the names of some places; its grammar will not grace the marketplace; since it has no reason to spread, then it will slowly fade.

And so it begins, the colonial drama. As we watch this scene, some of us, with amusement, perhaps even distance and irony, we are allowed to feel that this news from elsewhere has been dramatized to entertain us; at other times, however, it feels like something whose contours and emotions we fully recognize. It is easy, then, to remember moments from the places where two languages have collided, or when one folded uneasily over another; it is easy to conjure up those gnarled landscapes of possession and dispossession in all their rich and disturbed imagery.

If later, in a moment around the campfire, one of the redskins were to sing a song about love in the language which they all share, there will be silence. They will think at first of love, and then maybe of lost love. And then maybe they will begin to contemplate other things they have lost, or might soon come to lose, which the notes of the song seem to suggest more precisely than any list they could make. Some sense of themselves, who they are, where they belong. This sense, the emotion involved, will be more pressing and powerful than maps, laws, fences, borders. For the white man on his way to victory, this idea of having a precise place to which you belong will be taken for granted. It will not need to be felt because it is not being threatened. It will seem natural, almost God-given. For others, however, it will mutate into terms with many meanings which will come to haunt the second half of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century in Europe and elsewhere, terms such as nationalism, terms such as identity.

Take this one, for example. It was Tallinn in Estonia in 1994 and the Russians had finally gone. I was having supper with an Estonian family who were relieved at what had happened and full of hope for their country. They wanted now to connect with Scandinavia; they wanted to join the European Union. They saw Russia as an old dark place which was not progressive. They saw the Russian language as something that had been foisted on them; they didnt want to hear it again. They wanted to hear their own language, and maybe Swedish and Finnish but, more than anything, English. The fact that there were just one and a half million of them seemed only to add to their optimism, increase their happiness at the thought that they might finally be left in peace. They felt pride in themselves and who they were and what they might become.

The history of their country has echoes with the history of Catalonia. The publication of the Estonian national epic, Kalevipoeg, in 1862, and the organization of the first national song contest seven years later, managed to re-awaken a national spirit, a sense of a shared past moving back into the mists of time. By the 1890s this cultural force had become a political force; the movement for autonomy from Russia grew from this newly-awakened national cultural identity as much as from any set of economic arguments or needs.

(Download the book sample to continue reading the Prologue)
Irish novelist Colm Tibn.