This week we look at the book that eventually was voted winner of the Greatest Welsh Novel award, Un Nos Ola Leuad by Caradog Prichard.
This tale of a young man’s growing-up and education in the slate fields of the north-west, in Caernarfonshire as was, is a Bethesda bildungsroman, if you like. It is a rich confection, both accessible and abstruse, lyrical and workaday in the same breath. It takes the Welsh language, if not for a heavy workout, then for a very, very brisk walk in the high air of Snowdonia. The prose tumbles with life and the village community described therein is etched in tender and affectionate detail. Though it is also shot through with violence and abuse, darkness contesting the light, wrestling with it.
Centrally, the narrator’s mother is mad, and destined for the insane asylum and her hallucinations and visitations meld with the quotidian tales to great effect. The terrors of the old woman, stranded among the flotsam of her shipwrecked mind, are all the more powerful when one considers that all this material is autobiographically derived. Prichard’s own mad mother went to Denbigh Hospital, and stayed there for no fewer than thirty years, a long and testing episode in his life which haunted and troubled him for the rest of his mortals. They had been punishingly poor before that, so his upbringing was full of tests and travails. Little wonder that the author is able to mix up Laurie Lee type nostalgia with sexual and other violences, to describe mundane characters alongside Gwynedd transexuals, who also live in the village, and like their frocks.
The novel is a populous affair, with a relatively large cast of characters for its size, and we encounter sharply drawn people such as Anti Elin, Guto, Elwyn Pen Rhes and Jini Bach Pen Cae, not to mention some mythical figures such as Brenhines y Llyn Du, the Queen of the Black Lake and Brenhines yr Wyddfa, the Queen of Snowdon, mental apparitions or aberrations made corporeal and true. The prevalence of nicknames is typical of the area, and indeed of mining regions in general. So, some are named after their jobs or vocations, such as the barber Joni Wilias Barbwr and gamekeeper Dafydd Jos Cipar. Others are named after the place they live in such as Defi Difas Snowdon View and Arthur Tan Bryn, whilst the names of some reflect their relatives, so that you have Tad Wil Bach Plisman, Little Wil the Policeman’s Dad. These monikers are tender and telling, making everyone seem familiar, and serving to make the community in which they live fully known and close-knit, even to the interloping reader.
Written in the first person singular, Un Nos Ola Leuad is an experimental, at times almost formless account of a boy’s own life, with ribbons of childhood narrative brightly braided and plaited with dark seams of madness. The boy is never named and at times one glimpses, rather, that this is a story told from the seemingly glaucomal perspective of an elderly narrator, seemingly telling the story of his own childhood. Because of his age – the years are there – the redactor is far from a reliable narrator, as he seems himself a little bit nuts. Nevertheless, in essence Un Nos Ola Leuad is the story of his walk, or pilgrimage through the place he grew up, on the way to Pen Llyn Du, an ominous peak above a pool of black, standing water. The peak seems both grail and terminus, drawing the central character to an inevitable and grim conclusion.
It is conventional to refer to this novel’s narrative flow as ‘stream of consciousness’ and it is just that, a bright, hyper-oxygenated spume of twisting and coruscating words. The Prichardian prose-stream is mellifluous and uplifting, but it hides great horrors, like submarine pike, haunting the shallows. So Un Nos Ola Leuad mixes violence with tenderness, just as it leavens the first person account with snatches and bright shards of dialogue. The First World War, too, casts a dread shadow over events, with many deaths (the village cenotaph lists no fewer than 50 young men who have fallen in the trenches) and multiple suicides, some of which are witnessed by the young lad, despite his tender years.
The resulting fiction is remarkable beyond. Part of its appeal is the spirited vernacular in which it is written, with the jaggedness of the slate terrain mixed with the uplift of a buzzard’s wing. The language is poetic, poised, abundantly energetic and brilliantly engineered too. Although the book’s structure may at times be inchoate, the language is consistently deeply considered and brilliant, and well, it sings. Yes, this books sings, like an ousel on the high tops, telling tall and telling tales of humanity bustling in the workers’ terraces below. I will go this far: this is the one Welsh novel that can stand proud on the bookshelf marked ‘World’s Literary Treasury’, alongside works by Italo Calvino, Elias Canetti, Patrick White, Annie Proulx – think of your own names – and Prichard’s brilliant book easily passes muster and fully bears comparison. In prose it does not have a Welsh language competitor that comes within a league, so it is veritably within a league of its own. The fact that is was Prichard’s first novel only serves to underline the wonder of it.
One writer whose name might be usefully invoked in discussing it is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as Un Nos Ola Leuad has many characteristics of magical realism. Marquez’s extraordinarily influential novel One Hundred Years of Solitude seems as if it might have been an influence on Prichard, until one remembers that the Colombian’s work came out in 1967, while Prichard’s novel was first published in 1961. In this, Un Nos Ola Leuad seems to adumbrate and anticipate the major arrivals of magical realism, just as did the fictions of Borges. It certainly has that groundbreaking feel to it, and in Welsh writing it not only shattered the literary models of the past but also served as a pathfinder for the future, not least for the hugely engaging and inventive novels of Robin Llywelyn, but also my own work. In that Prichard is for many of us a benchmark for achievement and a hallmark of quality, like those jewellers’ symbols that attest to the purity of gold. And this novel, moonlight-drenched and pulsingly alive, has all the energy, vividness and variety of humanity – raw, venal, duplicitous and vital – and is pure gold. Gold found, unexpectedly, in great measure among the seams of grey slate and the forbidding landscapes of the quarried land of Gwynedd.
We may have slightly overused and devalued the word ‘classic’ when applied to books, but not in this case. It is a bona fide classic, both enduring and enlightening, a volume yearning to be read and re-read and shared with future generations, which will surely be enthralled by it, for as long as there is a language called Welsh in the scalped high hills.