Cynan Llwyd reviews Seven Days by Nathan Munday, a cabinet of curiosities, exploring Welsh myths and the Pyrenean landscape with lyrical prose.
Seven Days: A Pyrenean Adventure by Nathan Munday is an exhilarating read, beautifully written by an author of genuine originality. Munday’s debut announces him as a exciting and genre bridging author.
The book breaks up into seven chapters. Each chapter portrays a day of trekking the author, a Welshman from Sir Gar, enjoyed with his Thanet born father in the Pyrenees. The two are never alone. They enjoy the company of Catalans, Germans, Scandinavian Gods, three legged dogs, vultures and their ever present Creator. And ‘if angels come then this is where they walk’.
In each chapter of Seven Days Munday narrates the physical journey using vivid language. Munday is an artist and he masterfully paints the Pyrenees landscape:
“There are times when sky and earth war against one another. That great division between high and low is suddenly bridged by water. We are inclined in this cycle. You cannot see the mountains but you know that the water is falling. In the fields, the butterflies raise their heads. Their antennae move as our heads gaze upward. These flowers fly and their dye-dusty wings flap before their colours are washed away.”
His prose belongs to the typically Welsh lyrical tradition. ‘As I continue through these Genesis valley, I see the flowers burning like stars.’ Munday enjoys writing and that makes reading the book all the more enjoyable and thrilling.
As Munday describes their journey he comes face to face with Welsh and European myths, legends, histories and Biblical accounts. A figure there reminds him of Blodeuwedd, the first refuge where they stayed turned into the cave on Grassholm where Bendigeidfran’s severed head spoke with his men for eighty years. A saying there takes him back to the history of the Catalan resistance during the Spanish Civil War, a blade of grass reminds him of past misfortunes and the ever present immenseness of the Pyrenees reminds him of the glory of his God. He also baptise a man they meet early on as Hemingway, and he gives snippets of his life story, from the tragic death of his daughter to travelling to Tibet to adopt an orphan.
Seven Days is very much Munday’s cabinet of curiosities. It’s as if he’s bursting to tell the reader of all these wonderful stories and show us what random goodies are in his cabinet. It’s a testimony of great research and knowledge. It’s a testimony of the vast cultural, be that musical (he mentions classical composers a lot!), literary and historical knowledge he has. I must admit that quite a lot of the references were lost on me and that may dampen some readers enjoyment of the book. Munday offers help in the form of translations and footnotes but I had to google what Beethoven’s Sixth sounded like amongst other references. I enjoyed that experience and I learnt a lot from reading the book but others might find that ponderous.
An obvious feature in Munday’s cabinet of curiosities is his faith (being fully aware of the irony of putting faith in a box!). Seven Days shows that Munday is an heir of the great Welsh hymn writer, William Williams of Pantycelyn. Pantycelyn managed to marry two things that traditionally were enemies to each other: the Enlightenment and Evangelicalism. Pantycelyn, who first wanted to be a doctor before taking the cloth, showed great interest in the things of the world: it’s varied myths, legends, science, cultures, histories and customs (see his multi volume masterpiece Pantheologia, Neu Hanes Holl Grefyddau’r Byd [Pantheologia, or a History of all the World’s Religions], and his study of the Northern Lights in Aurora Borealis). The material world was of great importance to him. One of his great ambitions of life was to educate the Welsh in the things of this world. He famously said, in an advert for one of his books, that the Welshman was more ignorant than a monkey, and that he aimed to rectify that! He also, of course, showed the utmost importance to Heavenly things: “Iesu, Iesu, rwyt Ti’n ddigon / rwyt ti’n llawer mwy na’r byd.” [Jesus, Jesus, thou art sufficient / Thou art fuller than the world].
For as wonderful the earth was to Pantycelyn, Jesus was more wonderful. Munday, as Pantycelyn once did, does not see the material and the spiritual worlds as two seperate, clashing forces, but rather Heaven can be glimpsed through the beauty of creation and it’s Creator can be worshipped by being in awe of a col emerging through the clouds. For Munday, there isn’t such thing as the ordinary because everything is created by the Greatest Artist.
Some readers may disagree with Munday. He challenges atheists for example to have more faith not to believe in God when contemplating the vastness of space, but for Munday, his faith means that the whole of life is a celebration and a wonder. Men and women of faith writing in Welsh and/or English are scant these days, and if we are to have a thriving literary tradition we should encourage religious writing as well as the secular and encourage a healthy dialogue between both sets.
Seven Days is a book without borders. Munday hops from travel writing to story telling, from poetry to prose, seamlessly. Munday and his father also cross from France to Spain and back, meeting all kind of nationalities along the way: some friendly, some not, some chatty, some quiet, but all with a common goal – to experience the freedom that only the mountain offers.
Seven Days is a breath of fresh, Pyrenean, mythical, Welsh, European and blessed air. After all, ‘Each hill is a small window on eternity.’
Nathan Munday will be reading from Seven Days and will be in conversation with Cynan Llwyd at Saint Edwards Church, Blenheim Rd, Cardiff at 1pm on Saturday 21 October as part of madeinroath festival