Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Water, water everywhere / Nor any drop to drink.

Amongst other things over the long weekend, including breaking my vintage bike, seeing my mum and getting a sore throat, I read a book. More specifically, I read the translation of Lloyd Jones's Y Dŵr, simply called Water.

Lloyd Jones from Wales Literature Exchange | Cyfn on Vimeo.

I've met Jones at a conference on Welsh literature. He gave a reading from his novel Mr Vogel which I enjoyed so much that I bought it and Mr Cassini on the spot, and I was right to do so because he's a talented and interesting man (and very funny in the flesh too).

That said, I was disappointed by Water. I can't say much about the language because it's in translation and an awful lot is lost when going between such different ones as Welsh and English. I could just about struggle through the original but I fear I'd still struggle with the nuance. According to the various blurbs from eminent critics on the back, it's a sensitive and poetic text which will endure for decades.

Perhaps. Not in English though. Water is the tale of a failing family on a farm up a Welsh cwm in 2089 or so as global warming renders their lives impossible. Society has entirely broken down: institutions, cities, social structures, the seasons, communities have all gone. The family is the last to go, and with them, Welsh culture and the language. Various attempts are made to survive: murder, conscious myth-making (Mari's failed attempts to stave off disaster through storytelling suggest that literature isn't going to help much in the future), farming, but none work.

I think the major problem with Water was its familiarity. There's not a lot of speculative fiction in Welsh beyond Wythnos Yng Nghymru Fydd (A Week in Future Wales) so perhaps it seemed like a daring and distinctive thing to do, but stripped of that context, it's one of many dystopian novels washing around: if we restrict it to just sea-level rise stories, there's Baxter's Flood (another failure), Maggie Gee's The Flood, SD Crockett's After the Snow (set in Wales), Alex Scarrow's awful Afterlight novels, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities, Sharp North and Blown Away by Patrick Cave, Julie Bertagna's Exodus etc. ad infinitum (or ad deluvium)

You could say there's a flood of this stuff. We're awash with it. So new entries have to be good. Lloyd Jones's novel doesn't make it because it tries to do two things and doesn't quite manage either. He tries to record the death of a specifically Welsh culture - lots of Mabinogi and other legendary and literary references, songs etc, and he tries to trace the fall of a technological society. He does the first fairly well, though it feels shoe-horned in (especially the Cantre'r Gwaelod material, which could have been used brilliantly), and the second badly. The trick with these things is to either be highly specific or leave it all in the background and concentrate on your foreground narrative. Jones swings between the two, and the detail is unconvincing to say the least. 2089 is basically indistinguishable from 2009, until disaster strikes, which would be OK if he hadn't been so specific about iPods and the like: are we meant to believe that nothing, from primary schools to phones, changed in that time?

That leads to the second arm of the novel: social commentary. Over and over again characters or the narrator blame the catastrophe on our obsession with online or virtual reality. The interesting bits of the novel (such as the attempt to stay alive by reinventing the farm as a place of spurious pilgrimage) are overshadowed by the rather embarrassing author's attempts to warn us all to Put Down The iPad. If you're going to write a realist novel, you've got to stay with it: undercutting the narrative with heavy-handed Jeremiads or moral panics about not liking Facebook is hugely disappointing. Jones's core family echoed the dusty, exhausted nomads of Children of Men or the Flight into Egypt in really interesting ways: a novel of total defeat is rare and fascinating, but to reduce The Answer to 'Twitter Is Bad' just felt like a cop-out.

And then we get to the end: the young father stands up in the boat and is shot dead without ceremony. His hoped-for rescuers turn out to be ruthless invaders. They take the baby away for processing: either he'll be killed or trained up as a soldier. They are – embarrassingly – Chinese, come to take over the world now the decadent white folk have wiped themselves off the face of the earth and drowned their countries into the bargain. Yes, those cruelly efficient and inscrutable people have overrun the planet. Seriously - the last pages make Water a Yellow Peril novel. Oh for Gwyneth Jones's grown-up Bold As Love series. In the final novels, England (this is set post-UK) is decadent, doomed and damned. Like Lloyd Jones's scenario, the Chinese are on the move – but Gwyneth Jones isn't interest in racist stereotyping: her heroes spend a lot of effort persuading the degraded remains of the military to accept Chinese annexation rather than resisting it. Entirely uninterested in nationalism, Jones prefers to promote human survival as far more important than local political and ethnic differences.

Perhaps Lloyd J's Welshness is the key here. Cultural annihilation has been hovering above Welsh-language communities since the Saxons turned up, whereas it may be easier for an English author such as Gwyneth Jones to accept that empires have their turns and cultures with a critical mass won't be entirely effaced. I don't know - I can't quite work it out. But I remain unsettled by the unexpected appearance of the Chinese, and the way they're characterised here. There are cruel and selfish Welsh and English people in Water, but they have backgrounds and motivations with little differentiation between them: the Chinese are simply coldly organised to kill and exploit.

Hmm… not sure yet what to think.

No comments: