REVIEW by Ffion Lindsay

NWR Issue 98

Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn

by Tony Bianchi

I have a confession to make: before picking up Tony Bianchi’s Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn I hadn’t read a Welsh-language novel since my GCSEs. Therefore it was with some trepidation that I turned to Bianchi’s fourth book in Welsh, and a cursory glance at the blurb only confirmed my fears: what could a novel about a cantankerous seventy-nine year old runner possibly offer me?

Reading Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn was an intense and unnerving experience. I honestly can’t remember a time I’ve felt so completely immersed in the psyche of another human being, albeit a fictional character. The novel begins in rather macabre fashion, with Harri rising from his bed one morning and failing to realize that his wife, Beti, has died. The next 48 hours follow Harri as he prepares for the Bryn Coch benefit run and is visited by memories of significant races from his past, of the Mau Mau war in Kenya and of his turbulent relationship with his family. At first these recollections seem disjointed, as though our somewhat confused narrator is attempting to condense a lifetime’s worth of accumulated realizations and uncomfortable disclosures into as short a space as possible, but as these separate threads come together we realize that this is precisely what he is doing. These are the final sparks of clarity in a rapidly unraveling mind; dementia committed to paper.

I can’t say that I found Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn enjoyable, exactly - Harri Selwyn is too unlikeable a construct to travel with comfortably for long, with his unpleasant habit of judging a woman’s virtue by labeling her either ‘a sow’ or ‘not a sow,’ and his recollections of the Mau Mau war that are prefaced by the dubious disclaimer: ‘I’m not a racist, but.… ’ It is these unsavoury touches, though, that make Harri so believable a character. We are made privy to his deepest secrets, from praying for his brother’s death as a young boy to feeling only fleeting regret at the passing of his wife. Finishing this slow-paced and deeply unsettling book was like coming up for air and feeling the weight of Harri’s fears and neuroses melt away.

I think what I appreciated most about Bianchi’s novel was his evident pleasure in experimenting with language, especially when constructing the complex analogies that Harri employs to express his views on life, love and running. His use of the Welsh language is masterful, although it is not ‘merely’ good Welsh writing, (which is undoubtedly a high achievement in itself) but good writing full stop.

My only criticism of this novel is that Harri’s asides often become a little rambling and self-indulgent. While this is another means of strengthening the impression of Harri as a fully formed character, it can also prove frustrating. While it is certainly true that Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn requires some patience of its readers, I found it a very rewarding read and would recommend it to anyone who prefers their fiction suspenseful and their pensioners sinister. Now I am left wondering what other fantastic books I may have passed over too readily over the years.

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previous review: Knock ’em Cold, Kid
next review: The Mind-Body Problem


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