Friday, 6 April 2018

Why can't we all just get along? A book review

I'm back in the office - have been for a couple of days, after popping over to see the mother and assorted siblings and their children over Easter. I took Good Friday off as promised and went on a long and hilly bike ride, then slumped into utter inactivity once the Saturday Vigil was over (it was a trap: a 2h45m trap).

It was a good opportunity to catch up with some reading though. The best thing I read was Dark Territory, the translation of Jerry Hunter's 2017 novel Y Fro Dywyll.

Ranging from Wrecsam to Naseby to Drogheda to New England and beyond around the 'English' Civil War, it follows Rhisiart Dafydd through multiple identities starting with his Protestant radicalisation as a boy through his service in the Parliamentarian Army, subsequent work as an agent of John Powel, before his encounter with a Welsh Calvinist settlement in America and the gradual realisation that fundamentalism is not just socially destructive but a means of repressing the complexity of the self (a message also glimpsed in the Buffy episodes 'What's My Line?' 1 and 2). In the case of Dark Territory, we see the constant dialectic between sects and visionaries in the early period of the Commonwealth mutate into mutual hostility followed by brutal violence, culminating in the darkest practices of this group of Calvinists, who take the doctrine of 'election' to a horrifying conclusion.

The novel is partly about Welsh identity within a British-English hegemony and within the Christian tradition, and partly a spiritual Bildungsroman, but it's pretty obviously meant as an allegory for Islamist radicalism. Useful, I suppose, to remind us that most religions have these periods of violent repression, but thankfully it's not overdone. Hunter's conclusions are good liberal ones, with an added suggestion that masculinity is closely tied to the search for fundamentalist purity: men, it seems to imply, privilege certainty over mutual respect and openness, unless softened by women. Oddly, a similar – though less nuanced – conclusion is reached in Boris Johnson's Seventy Two Virgins, a 'comedy' about suicide bombers which suggests that more sex would reduce the pool of young Muslims ready to blow people up. Certainly Rhisiart Dafydd learns through hard experience – committing atrocities, losing loved ones – that exclusivity and certainty are the weapons of idealistic young men and dangerous old ones.

I liked Dark Territory very much. It's beautifully and viscerally written (translation: Patrick Ford), carefully-researched and intellectually wide-ranging. Hunter takes seriously the various spiritual and intellectual perspectives found in the Civil War period while subjecting them all to a critical analysis, wrapped up in a compelling narrative. I did find it rather one-eyed when it came to men and women though: while one or two women offer alternative perspectives to the men in their lives, they're relatively marginal. Wives and children die in the plague, widows fear for their babies, a sister nurtures her orphaned brother, and camp followers (though carefully not presented as 'whores') are massacred in the process of Rhisiart's journey to enlightenment. What they are not are thinkers or protagonists to any serious extent. Nor are the native Americans Rhisiart meets: carefully constructed as nice people carefully differentiated by tribal group, they help him in his quest and remind the reader that pat distinctions between Civilised and Barbarian are unsustainable despite the efforts of the fundamentalists, while also suggesting to English readers that the Welsh and Irish might have been analogous. Purpose served, they disappear until, at the end, we're told that they wiped out most of the early English settlements.

I struggled with Hunter's previous novel, Ebargofiant, which wasn't translated into English – the challenging language and literary style combined to defeat me almost completely (my fault, not Hunter's), so I'm delighted that Y Lolfa translated this one. I just wish it would get some reviews and attention in the English-language press. Last week the Guardian ran a piece on translated literature people shouldn't miss: not a single one was originally in Welsh, Scots Gaelic or Irish.
The possibilities aren’t (strictly speaking) infinite, but this month’s remit takes in everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the latest releases from pioneering translated fiction publishers such as And Other Stories and Peirene Press. So: all the classics, and all of French, German, Portuguese, Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian or Russian literature … You get the idea.
You can go for massive, immortal classics such as The Aeneid, The Ramayana, Don Quixote and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain – or you can go for a slice of modern life from Dorthe Nors, Xiaolu Guo, Orhan Pamuk and Haruki Murakami.

Mostly wonderful stuff, but without classic and contemporary work from the rest of the archipelago, Anglophones are really missing out on some wonderful literature.

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