NWR Issue 73

Wales Through The Looking Glass

Early on in Mihangel Morgan's Melog, Dr Jones, its protagonist, makes a very significant literary discovery:
Strange things were happening to Dr Jones. To begin with - and who is to say that this was not the starting point? - he had read an article - he could not remember what it was about - by Borges, in which he mentions Zeno of Elea …

The reference is to Borges's essay 'Avatars of the Tortoise' (one of which will turn up, a page later, in Dr Jones's garden), in which he sketches a putative fragment from an incomplete, and of course incompletable, work: a 'Biography of the Infinite', tracing it from Zeno's second paradox to the 'sordid nightmares of Kafka'. Now Dr Jones may not remember what it was about, but Mihangel Morgan certainly does: in its essence it is about fictions - in the widest and most profound application of that word.

Melog itself pays ample homage to the fiction of Borges. It has its own version of 'The Lottery in Babylon'; it has its counterparts to the imaginary lands of Tlon and Uqbar; and Dr Jones's fruitless copying of the Welsh Encyclopaedia is an echo of Pierre Menard's transcription (re-creation?) of Cervantes' Don Quixote. But more than this, Morgan's novel takes from Borges a playful, and deeply serious, concern with the human need for sustaining fictions, for the illusions we cleave to in order to make existence bearable, meaningful, comprehensible. Some of these can be small and personal - Dr Jones's fake title for instance - while others can be as big as a whole culture, a whole country. After a lengthy discussion with Dr Jones about their respective nations, Melog, the character, concludes: 'You can't prove the existence of Wales to me, any more than I can prove the existence of Sacria and Laxaria to you.'

Sacria, Laxaria, Wales - juxtaposed on the pages of a novel they become disconcertingly equivalent, as real and unreal as each other. And this is characteristic of Melog as a whole (as discussed in this issue by Christopher Meredith); its peculiar blending of the fantastical, the
unbelievable, and the grimly quotidian; its artful distortion of the boundaries between them. In the end we're not quite sure what's absurd and what's not. All of which feeds into the book's wider parodic intent, its desire to tease and cajole and berate the reality we take as given, to make us question the very ground beneath our feet. Dr Jones, it's worth remembering, forgets to look where he's standing and ends up treading on a tortoise called Zeno.

And if Welsh literature has been treading on some curious terrain recently, then so has Welsh writing in English. One strand of this writing, popularised by Malcolm Pryce and Jasper Fforde, is also self-consciously concerned with fictions - in this case confined primarily to a purely literary sense. The pastiche of specific forms and genres - detective fiction, pulp fiction, the nursery tale - and their transposition onto unlikely locales - Aberystwyth, Swindon - are for both writers an obvious means of comic and absurdist defamiliarization. But behind the joke we at least get a kind of glimpse of how literature works (or maybe warps is the better word), of how it can re-model the world in its own self-referential image; as Will Atkins points outs, both authors 'write about literature and what it does to us and what we do to it.' And Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, ventriloquised onto the surreal mean streets of Aberystwyth, undeniably add a distinctive new tincture and timbre to the literary landscape.

Of all the ground crossed by contemporary Welsh writers, no one has covered more of it than Lloyd Jones. His circumnavigation around Wales's edges, recounted and baroquely recast into what he calls the 'gonzo picaresque' of Mr Vogel, is one of the oddest and most accomplished
journeys in Welsh writing; a journey that seeks to discover Wales from within and without, by an explorer who is also a native, in search of an actual place, an ideal place - or in fact a no-place. Because the landscapes, stories, and histories encountered in Jones's book are meaningful (and
real) only in terms of what his narrators make of them; the physical and cultural territory they move through isn't something to be passively recorded but actively created.

In this regard, it's worth recalling that the story Jones draws on most directly in his book is the myth of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a myth about the fabrication of identities and belongings. And not only does Mr Vogel draw on Welsh myth for its content, it also takes on its forms and modes of composition and transition. The proliferation and fragmentation of narrative voice, the constant glossing, the hoarding and heaping of quotation, the restless interpolation and perpetual redaction, all testify to the need for myths to be built and rebuilt through telling and retelling. Like landscapes, they belong to no-one and everyone, they mutate as they pass through different hands. And, like its myths, Wales isn't a bounded entity, a bordered space, but a figurative possibility, a tremendously elastic and mobile metaphor. Mr Vogel is, above all, a fable about the
transformative and redemptive power of the imagination.

Whether its fabric is homespun or adapted from other literatures, this sampling of Welsh writing suggests an increasingly urgent impulse to see Wales through different eyes, in different disguises. This is Wales refracted through the looking glass - sometimes big, sometimes small; sometimes there, sometimes not. It's a Cheshire Cat's grin of a country.


previous editorial: Writing on the Land
next editorial: The Problem with Poetry


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