‘The Dilemma of Matty the Goat’ by Seumas O’Brien

After Matty the Goat’s first wife runs off and disappears, he marries again. Then his first wife returns and he faces a quandary: Stay and be guilty of bigamy? Leave and be guilty of desertion? The safest thing, he thinks, is to commit suicide. But it’s “too weighty a problem for a poor man like myself” to decide, and so he travels to Madrid to seek the advice of the King of Spain. 

“What in the name of all the cockroaches in Carrigmacross brought you here?” the King asks when Matty the Goat shows up on the palace doorstep in Madrid. The two men converse for many days, covering many subjects: “about old times and the price of potatoes, ladies’ hats, and fancy petticoats.” “Old talk like this,” ses the King, 

… leads nowhere, because no matter how much we may know about art, literature, and music, the very best of us can only be reasonable and sensible when we have nothing to upset us. A hungry man is always angry, and an angry man is never sensible. On the other hand, a man will make a lot of foolish promises and resolutions after a good dinner, and when he begins to get hungry again, he will think that he was a fool for having entertained such decent sentiments.

 Though the story takes Matty on through consultations with the Gaekwar of Persia, the Czar of Russia, and the King of Greece, it’s really just an excuse for a series of conversations that twist and turn and inevitably wrap back upon themselves like a Moebius strip. It’s as absurd and sublime as Waiting for Godot.

At the time it was published, The Whale and the Grasshopper was packaged like Auld Sod nostalgia, but I’d argue it’s the Ur-text for Beckett and Flann O’Brien. It’s a prime example of the gems you can find if you go digging into the forgotten books of the past.

Included in The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, Little, Brown, 1916 and available on Project Gutenberg here

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