Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"A White Afternoon: New Welsh Short Fiction" Book Review

Meic Stephens, by whom I am heartened reading in the acknowledgements that he learned Welsh as an adult, edited (sparingly-- brief notes on each of the thirty-four Welsh-language contributors) and translated these stories. (He also edited the standard reference "A New Companion to the Literature of Wales.") All are by authors who in 1998 were under the age of fifty. Now, given that perhaps half a million know Welsh and few of them can make a living as full-time authors, are these disparate tales comparable in quality to those winnowed from, say, small-press magazines and literary journals in America or Britain of their counterparts working in English?

Without Stephens' facility in both languages, I hesitate to pass judgement on these varied stories he's chosen to give us in English. Yet, overall the mood strikes me as melancholy rather than celebratory. The stories begin with the title entry by Sonia Edwards, and this elegicially captures a young girl watching her mother don a wedding dress as her mother prepares for a second marriage, to a man not the girl's father. This effectively conveys the mixed emotions inherent in this fresh perspective of what would otherwise be a too-familiar setting.

The selections progress through evocations, often about faltering if not failed relationships, into depictions of madness and mental instability. Many of these appeared awkward, perhaps reflecting their subject matter, and less compelling. I'll mention the stories that stood out most to me. "Mothers" from Meleri Roberts depicts the triptych of new babies as seen by a maternity ward nurse simply portrayed for better control; Dyfed Edwards tilts the mundane world of and for "The Librarian" into a muted gothic narrative. Eirug Wyn's "The Window Maker" reminds me of a Kafkaesque parable. "Reflections by a Pool" from Dafydd Arthur Jones takes the post-modern conceit of an author's creations turning on him in revenge or revolt and manages to keep the idea vivid enough. Many of the stories, however, falter near their conclusions, and the strain many of them show in their characters' own impotence permeates their themes and constructions.

John Emyr's "By the Waters of Babylon" casts a subtly apocalyptic tinge over its beachside party with its recalcitrant Welsh exile among German expats. Lowri Angharad Rees' "The Coat" and Meg Ellis' "Going In" tell their accounts of inequality and struggle with a social justice flavor that enhances their perspectives. "The Pizza Man" by Owain Meredith, and "Mr and Mrs Tiresias" by Sian Prydderch Huws ambitiously strive to combine an off-beat sensibility and touches of satire that make their telling notably different than the more dour scenes of most of their compatriots.

This funhouse distortion contrasts with two stories that adapt the folktale mode into stories with dialogue and tonal shifts that appear contemporary despite the magical qualities of the events and diction employed: "The Heart of Dafydd Bach" by Esyllt Nest Roberts and "The Cuckoo's Time is April and May" by Robin Llewelyn. These types of stories, with their more exaggerated qualities, may resist easy comprehension into English: I felt much more resonance veiled through the Welsh originals that must have dramatically energized the allusions and deepened the prose.

The translator chose a low profile and his decision not to editorialize beyond four paragraphs on the final page of this anthology shows his determination to let the stories speak loudest. Stephens manages with general success to let the divergent voices of thirty-four authors emerge, and this range alone deserves acclaim. The choices he's made, on the other hand, show the perhaps inevitable strengths and weaknesses of showcasing efforts of widely divergent ideas and craftsmanship among many emerging authors in what's a lesser-known language needing translation.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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