NWR Issue 109

Falling Storeys or Tall Stories

Last year the author and translator Richard Gwyn returned from extensive travel throughout Latin America as a Creative Wales Ambassador for the Arts Council of Wales, researching among other things his forthcoming anthology of Hispanic poetry in translation for Seren. In the first of our online supplements on 1 July, he wrote of the ‘epiphany’ of discovering such writers from the region as Borges and García Márquez, and how that ‘opened the doors to different perceptions of reality, in which the frail membrane separating one world… was always permeable…. Everything was a fiction. This was a model, I believed, that could be applied to almost anything: culture, language, philosophy… it was almost, but not quite, a religion.’ Gwyn last summer recorded an extended conversation with the Scottish translator of both so-called magic realist authors, Alastair Reid, weeks before his death. Reid repeated a refrain of his essays, borne out by years living among villagers of the Dominican Republic. Nothwithstanding the risk of First World ‘ethnocentrism’, which Gwyn acknowledges, this observation concerned ‘the reluctance of Latin Americans in general (not just authors) to discriminate between what “actually” happened, and what might have happened under other circumstances. Thus life (and storytelling) is a continuous weave of memory, confabulation and invention.’

As Gwyn states, for both Reid and Borges, anything at all using language to attempt to shape reality is fiction. So the tall war stories of a narcissistic, lying father’s war are refracted, in Peter E Murphy’s family memoir (published here), through a prism in which the author knows he’s up to the same game: ‘Eddie was a great swimmer. He said that during the war they didn’t fight on Sundays, so each week he swam the English Channel to France and took the subway back.’ Since the actual events of D-Day are a hole at the centre of Murphy’s piece, it might be kinder to interpret Murphy senior's telescoping of time and sequence as the product of trauma-based amnesia. In this way emotion and language work in tandem with distance and repetition to further distort and even suppress an initial experience.
A similar amnesia, though willed for reasons of sanity, is the crux of former soldier Daniel Jones’ story. For his protagonist, memory is an ‘IED’, a buried roadside bomb around which he must sweep carefully: ‘Self-preservation is paramount; a lapse is indicated by the heartbeat accelerating just as yours did in an echo of the accelerating beeps of the Valum which signal something below the surface.’ Conversely and perversely, willed commemoration of wars that should be forgotten as their veterans die off, is what John Barnie’s column condemns as a political construction. The function of the renewal and expansion of Armistice Day to include the fallen of Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Barnie argues, is to maintain the pretence of Britain remaining a world power. The danger is to those not savvy to such public manipulation of memory (and its emotional underpinning).

Caradoc Evans’ ‘unceasing insistence that he was writing truthfully about people’ from his south Cardiganshire childhood in his hyperbolic horror-comic stories collected in My People, is what perplexes Huw Lawrence in his essay. His publisher Andrew Melrose ran the subtitle ‘Stories of the Peasantry of West Wales’ and a cover blurb making claim to the author’s ‘sincerity’ in depicting ‘realistic pictures of peasant life’. The critics picked up the realist baton, with one review in The Globe attributing to the book ‘no small ethnological value’. Thus Evans recast personal remembered demons for the public realm in what Barbara Rhys Williams calls his ‘deeply felt narratives of victimisation’. Turning Uncle Tom, he mocked his own community and their language in a faux-Bible speak drawing on and extending a tradition stretching through the seventeenth century back to Shakespeare, all in an apparent strike for revenge against those he saw as having humiliated his family. Like the wiliest politician, Evans disguised childhood trauma around his father’s victimisation due to his work and personal weaknesses. Thus a few heightened personal memories, distorted by time, magnified by repetition, highly crafted in language, were further transformed by public English attitudes and what we may in this case safely embrace as ‘ethnocentrism’ (of a metropolitan rather than a First World perspective) into a persisting negative iconography of Wales.

At least in adult sexual life, our early experiences, while usually confabulated, certainly distorted and oftentimes repeated, do not usually have such public ramifications as memory’s transformation into literature. The narrator of Crystal Jeans’ story ‘My Bukowski’ happily knows where her fantasy of sleeping with the local tramp ends. That is, just the wrong side of a hammy pre-coitus recitation of ‘Trouble With Spain’: ‘I lean over to my knicker drawer and pull out a condom. Bukowski wouldn’t use a condom. Or he would, but right at the end he’d yank it off, sink his dick back in and say, “You can have my seed and like it, you whore.” But you can take something too far.’


previous editorial: Climbing the Fish Ladder
next editorial: Review 3


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