Posted on 27th August 2014

Posted by Sophie

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David Hebblethwaite on three Welsh novels in translation

I’ve been aiming to incorporate my main reading interests in these columns for Fiction Uncovered. Today, it’s the turn of fiction in translation: I’ve chosen to look at three Welsh-language novels which won the Wales Book of the Year award and have since been translated into English. There was no great design in choosing these three particular titles, but I’ve found that they share a concern with the interaction of place and character, in their own individual ways.

The title characters of Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis (first published as Martha, Jac a Sianco, 2004; translated by Gwen Davies, 2007) are three siblings living on their family farm, Graig-ddu. The tone of the novel is set by its opening scene, where the three go out at night to find out who or what has been wounding one of their cows. They discover that, in fact, the cow has gained a taste for her own udders, to the point of tearing them off. That’s only the first example of how the outside world is beyond the siblings’ control, and of the stark realities of their life on the farm.

Graig-ddu as a domain is key in Lewis’s novel; it is the siblings’ inheritance, their commitment, and in a sense their prison. When other characters impinge on the protagonists’ lives, we often see the effect in terms of how the farm is changed. When Jack enters a relationship with a woman named Judy, Martha starts to notice her possessions in the house: “Gradually her home’s landscape was coated with a drift of Judy’s things.” And when Martha tells Gwynfor, the man she loves, that she cannot be with him because of the farm, she preserves his mark on the landscape by placing a washing-up bowl over his footprint.

Gwen Davies’s translation creates sharp breaks between the chapters, diluting the sense of forward motion, and emphasising the unchanging nature of Graig-ddu life; time and again, the siblings return to the farm routine, because that is what they have, and what must be done. The thing is, of course, that time does move forward, and life is not unchanging. As the harshly effective ending shows, it takes only a moment for the world to be disrupted irrevocably.

The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (first published as O! Tyn y Gorchudd, 2002; translated by Lloyd Jones, 2010) is also a novel about a family tied to their farm, but this time spanning the twentieth century. As an old woman, Rebecca Jones (the author’s great-aunt) looks back on her life, which she has spent in the valley of Maesglasau. She is profoundly connected to this place: “Cwm Maesglasau is my world. Its boundaries are my boundaries.” She knows that, when she dies, she will have given her life to the valley – but, conversely, the way of life that she represents will also pass from Maesglasau.

As a character, Rebecca is more witness than actor; her brothers leave (and in some cases return to) the farm, but she remains, eventually alone. Even when it seems that Rebecca might have found someone to love, in the shape of an Italian prisoner-of-war who comes to stay for a few months, she only imagines the life they might have had together. By the end of her days, Rebecca seems at ease with her role as custodian of Maesglasau.

For that reason, the tone of Price’s novel does not strike me as one of sorrow – melancholy, yes, but also celebratory in its way. Though the bounds of Rebecca’s existence may be limited geographically, they are vast in other ways. Throughout her life, Rebecca is a keen reader; she peppers her account with quotations from poetry and other texts. She also comments: “I sometimes think that the act of remembering life gives more pleasure than living itself.” Lloyd Jones’s translation gives Rebecca’s account a similar texture whether she’s focusing on memory, place, text, or experience. This underlies that, for her, those are all equally valid parts of life; and so Rebecca can look back over her days and see a life well lived.

Where Rebecca Jones remains in a familiar place for all her many years, Alun Brady – the protagonist of Llwyd Owen’s Faith, Hope & Love (first published as Ffydd Gobaith Cariad, 2006; translated by the author, 2010) – becomes sharply dislocated from the world he knows. We meet Al as he leaves prison, to find that he may have gained freedom, but has lost a certain amount of stability in the process: it’s a new millennium; the Cardiff he knew has changed; and he’s surrounded by new technology. With his parents dead, and feeling estranged from his brother Will, Al falls in with Floyd, a cemetery caretaker who dabbles in a few dodgy activities on the side.

Chapters on Al’s current present alternate with an account of life before prison, where we see a rather different Alun Brady: a man with clear moral convictions, still living with his parents at age 30, who looks on at Will and his happy young family, and sees someone who made it in spite of his behaviour, while Al is convinced that he’s the one who has always done the right thing. It’s hard to see initially how this Al could ever end up in jail. But events take a turn when Al’s dying grandfather Paddy moves in – and he’s not the only visitor who will change Al’s life.

By structuring the novel so that Al’s pre- and post-prison life run in parallel, Owen focuses our attention on comparing the two. We can see in both phases how a largely well-meaning Al ends up in a situation he didn’t foresee – firstly because his world is suddenly changed with the arrival of Paddy, later because the world he knew has gone, and he wants to claw back something that approximates to it. Owen’s prose captures the whirlwind of Al’s experiences, as he tries to find a place for himself, before life finds one for him.

David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer. He has written about books for venues including the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered PrizeWe Love This BookStrange Horizons; and Shiny New Books. He blogs at Follow the Thread. You can also find David on Facebook and as @David_Heb on Twitter.

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