Monday, January 14, 2008

Caradoc Prichard's "One Moonlit Night" Book Review

This Welsh-language novel frequently makes the top ten recommendations for English-language readers wanting the best of fiction from Wales. Niall Griffiths (whose amazing début "Grits" made the same BBC list from which I took this cover image of the Penguin bilingual edition, which I preferred to the New Directions illustration for the U.S. translation I review) sang its praises as one of "his" favorites also, so I tracked it down. As Harri Pritchard Jones' fine introduction compares the haunted quality to Kafka and the stylistic variety to Joyce, I do understand, filtered through Philip Mitchell's careful translation, how modernist fears and psychological states flow through this at times vivid telling of a ten-year-old boy's coming of age in the slate-mining town of Bethesda. True to its name, it takes its power from a Biblical aura-- the chapels and churches permeate the mood of the town, both to give solace during WWI as many who left come back only in a box, and to provide rejection, as to a young woman who will not name-- or may not know-- the father of her child.

Prichard does not belabor such scenes. The 1961 novel shares with such as Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood" the naming convention of people with their homes or trades, and many chapters especially in the earlier pages tend to share a staccato, rapid, and terse telling of the conversations and relationships in the North Walian village. The trouble is, they often failed to involve me. My eyes skimmed many sections when little appeared to happen, although the surface was rendered in detail. The back cover tells me that the "novel is told with a remarkable shifting between formal narrative and local dialect." While I understand the skill with which clumsy English has been harnessed to convey the tricky Welsh, the jump in register between the two modes does make for dramatic interludes of elegant, cadenced, and bardic invocation to the "Queen of the Black Lake," one as Chapter 8 and one as the coda. These astonish even in translation, and they must leap out even more boldly from the Welsh original.

But much of the rest of the novel trundles along with the narrator's devotion to his mother, who becomes mad near the close of the action. There's a somewhat fevered, melodramatic climactic scene that carries the novel's underlying despair at the carnage of the Great War forward in not exactly predictable, but perhaps too neat a narrative arc. Characters fail to come alive as much as moments of natural contemplation, or one episode when the protagonist visits a hilltop farm to feed a dog. In such moments, there's a connection with the landscape that provides images and concrete analogies that brought me closer to the place itself. Still, I can appreciate the force and momentum that Prichard labored to channel into this novel, and it is recommended if with reservation for English-language audiences.

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