TagNew Stories from the Mabinogion

Reading round-up: late November

Ivan Vladislavić, Double Negative (2010)

dnIn early-1980s Johannesburg, young Neville Lister is angry at the injustices he sees around him, but that anger lacks focus. His family arranges for him to spend a day with the photographer Saul Auierbach, famed for his ability to capture the stories behind the everyday. Auerbach and Lister are challenged to approach three random houses and find a story in each; they get to two, and the resulting portraits become celebrated. Years later, Lister returns from London to the post-apartheid South Africa, sets up as a photographer, and, disoriented by his changed city, goes to find out who is behind the door of that third house.

As its title suggests, Double Negative is a novel of mirroring and inversions. In his youth, Lister is driven by an untamed social conscience; but he finds himself lost when apartheid actually ends. Where Auerbach seems to find truth with ease in his work, for Lister it is a struggle. By novel’s end, in 2009, Lister has become a fêted photographer in his own right, but appears to have become the kind of closed-off person that one senses the young Neville Lister would despise. In Double Negative, Ivan Vladislavić has created an intriguing character study, and an examination of social change refracted through the experience of one individual. Good on And Other Stories for picking it up and bringing it to a wider audience.

Trezza Azzopardi, The Tip of My Tongue (2013)
Tishani Doshi, Fountainville (2013)

These are the final pair of titles in Seren Books’ New Stories from the Mabinogion series (see here and here for my blog posts about some of the previous volumes). Reading these books has always been fascinating; I’ve constantly been impressed by the ingenuity with which the writers reshape their source material (as I don’t know the Mabinogion much at all, I’ve been grateful for the summaries of the original tales which appear in each book). The new titles are no exception.

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Trezza Azzopardi’s The Tip of My Tongue is based on the story of ‘Geraint, son of Erbin’. In the original tale, Geraint is a Cornish prince who marries the beautiful Enid; he forbids her to speak to him as they travel, even though she warns him of danger (I’m glossing over a lot of events here, but these Mabinogion stories are not easy to sum up in a sentence or two). Azzopardi’s novel begins in 1970s Cardiff, where Enid is a young girl and Geraint her spoiled cousin. Much to her annoyance, Enid is sent to live with Geraint and his family, the Erbins, in Devon. The Tip of My Tongue is more of a thematic interpretation of the Mabinogion story than a literal retelling; Azzopardi is perhaps most interested in exploring (as she comments in her afterword) ‘the idea of the female voice as powerful, as a tool – as a weapon.’ Young Enid’s voice is powerful because it is more or less the only thing over which she has control; in a sense, it’s the only thing we have as readers, because the novel is filtered through Enid’s perception. Her narrative voice is full of verve and delightful to read; but it also makes us aware of all the subtleties on which Enid doesn’t pick up – in other words, the power that she doesn’t have. That combination makes The Tip of my Tongue an absorbing book.

fvIn Fountainville, Tishani Doshi also reimagines a Mabinogion story from a female character’s viewpoint, this time the tale of ‘The Lady of the Fountain’, which sees one of Arthur’s knights, Owain, travel to a distant castle, kill its black knight, and fall in love with the knight’s wife, the Lady of the Well. Fountainville is set in non-specific frontier country that is something like India sprinkled with touches of the Wild West. Its Lady is Begum, keeper of the town’s fountain, who is married to a gang lord named Kedar and runs a ‘greenhouse’ for women rather than plants. Doshi’s narrator is Begum’s assistant Luna, who takes a liking to Owain Knight, a foreigner who arrives in Fountainville one day. The characters’ lives are shaken when Kedar is killed; then Owain disappears, and Luna discovers his secret. As with Azzopardi’s book, I’m struck by how Doshi has subtly altered the focus of the story in repurposing its elements. Fountainville strikes me as a story of change: Luna’s personal change, and the changing face of the town. It and The Tip of My Tongue are a fitting end to the New Stories from the Mabinogion.

Book notes: Harris, Dafydd, Clare

Shelley Harris, Jubilee (2011)

Satish Patel was a boy at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the son of an immigrant Ugandan family in an otherwise all-white Buckinghamshire village; he was a key figure in a photograph taken of the village’s Jubilee celebrations, an image which became iconic. Thirty years on, Satish is a successful cardiologist with a habit of helping himself to diazepam from the medicine cabinet; he receives a call from an old friend, telling him of plans to stage a reconstruction of the photo – but Satish is reluctant to take part.

Shelley Harris’s debut novel unpicks its central situation carefully, revealing the tensions beneath the apparent harmony shown in the photograph, and the secrets hidden by Satish and his friends and neighbours. If the ending feels to jump the gap of years a little too quickly in terms of how it deals with the issues between characters, the journey up to that point is engaging – with the writing of Satish’s addiction particularly sharp – and the book as a whole represents a promising start to Harris’s career as a novelist.

Fflur Dafydd, The White Trail (2011)

Time for a look at the latest in Seren’s series of books reworking tales from the Mabinogion. Fflur Dafydd’s contribution is based on the myth of ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’; but, rather than a straightforward modern retelling, the author sends her story off in a different direction grown out of filling in gaps in the beginning of the original tale. Dafydd’s protagonist is Cilydd, who’s searching for his missing pregnant wife when he finds evidence that she is dead and the baby has been stolen. Cilydd becomes involved with a missing persons charity, and is settling into a new relationship, when his son Culhwch reappears, with the story of his strange upbringing, and the desire to rescue a beautiful girl named Olwen from the father who keeps her prisoner.

The White Trail examines what drives Cilydd to go on as he does, how far it’s  genuine concern and compassion, and how far the need to fill holes in his life. The book also explores the rights and wrongs of looking for people who may not want to be found, and this is where Dafydd uses the fantastic to great effect. The opening section on Cilydd’s life is firmly grounded in the reality of contemporary Wales, but the novel slides towards fantasy when Culhwch appears on the scene; this is imagined so convincingly that it’s a quite a jolt to be pulled back into quotidian reality at the end – and that jolt represents the way that characters’ actions and motivations which seemed reasonable to us at the time suddenly appear less so when the circumstances change. It’s a wonderful moment in a fine piece of work.

Horatio Clare, The Prince’s Pen (2011)

The Mabinogion story of ‘Lludd and Llevelys’ forms the inspiration for Horatio Clare’s novel, and his reinterpretation is less oblique than Dafydd’s: the myth tells of three ‘plagues’ which befall Britain (an invasion by a seemingly omniscient people; the maddening screams of two dragons; and the disappearantce of food from the king’s larders); Clare translates these threats into the context of a near future where only remnants of England lie above sea-level, and Wales is one of the last outposts of the free world. The volume we hold is the story of the Welsh bandit kings Ludo and Levello and their battle against the Invaders, as told by Clip, trusted associate (and amanuensis) of the illiterate Ludo.

Perhaps more so than with Dafydd’s story, The Prince’s Pen gains effect from comparison with the source tale; Clare’s updating of the ‘plagues’ is smart and speaks firmly to contemporary concerns. The book faltered a little for me as a narrative at the beginning, in that the battle scenes didn’t feel to have as strong an anchoring in reality as they might. But The Prince’s Pen works well as a portrait of the complexities faced by rulers trying to stick to their principles in time of war.

New Stories from the Mabinogion: Lewis and Griffiths

Gwyneth Lewis, The Meat Tree (2010)
Niall Griffiths, The Dreams of Max & Ronnie (2010)

These are the latest two volumes in Seren Books’ series reworking the medieval Welsh tales of the Mabinogion. I don’t really know those myths, but, luckily for me, there’s a handy synopsis at the back of each book that helped me get up to speed. However, when I read the synopsis in Gwyneth Lewis’s The Meat Tree (based on the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, the story of Blodeuwedd), I thought, how do you make a novel out of this, when it’s so disjointed by comparison?

Well, Lewis tackles that issue head-on and has come up with a fascinating solution. The Meat Tree is set in 2210 and focuses on Campion, an ‘Inspector of Wrecks’, and his apprentice Nona. They investigate a ship which has apparently come from Earth, though surely it’s too well-preserved, and there’s no sign of what happened to the crew. In the hope of gaining some clues, Campion and Nona turn to the virtual reality system placed prominently on the ship; this plunges them into the tale of Blodeuwedd – but what was its significance to the crew?

Representing the myth as a VR game addresses its episodic nature, as the protagonists experience it episodically (‘the progression of the plot can feel very uncomfortable,’ says Campion [p. 37]). But, more significantly than this, it also puts a distance between the myth itself and our viewpoint characters, which allows Lewis to interrogate the myth as she goes, as well as retelling it. The text becomes something of a live laboratory, as Campion and Nona try to puzzle out what the story might have meant to the people who told it (both in their immediate fictional context and, by implication, to the original medieval tellers); they explore issues such as the symbolic representation of gender and power in a way that doesn’t feel at all forced.

On a narrative level, though, The Meat Tree is also fascinating. The story is told entirely through the medium of Campion’s and Nona’s ‘synapse logs’ and ‘joint thought channel’, so that’s layer another of perception to add to all the rest. The protagonists’ identities shift and accrete (for example, near the beginning, we have Nona and Campion in the game playing male characters who have been turned into animals, one male and one female – and how well Lewis handles the writing of it), and even eventually bleed out of the game. There are also moments that bring the bare details of the myth sharply off the page, such as when Blodeuwydd (a woman created magically from flowers) realises that she is ‘a flower made of meat’ (p. 173).

Towards the end of the novel, there is perhaps too much of a sense of the two protagonists slotting everything together conveniently – but, then again, what else was going to happen? It would be too much of a let-down if the mystery of the ship stayed a mystery, and there’s no one else to do the figuring-out. Whatever, The Meat Tree is a spectacular work of the imagination.

***

After that, Niall Griffiths’ (relatively) more conventional retelling of two dream stories in The Dreams of Max & Ronnie pales a little in comparison, perhaps. But, still,

The first and longer of Griffiths’ novellas, ‘Ronnie’s Dream’, is based on the Mabinogion story of Rhonabwy, whose dream was a vision of King Arthur and a vast gathering of knights. Griffiths’ Ronnie is a squaddie about to set off for Iraq; the leader he meets in his dream is not Arthur, but an analogue of Tony Blair. Reading ‘Ronnie’s Dream’, I felt the limitations of not having read the Mabinogion; a synopsis is fine, but it can’t give me the sense of the original tale. Griffiths’ version is a satire, primarily on the Iraq war, but it doesn’t quite work for me on that level. For one thing, it feels like a bit of a grab-bag – mostly stuff on the war, but it also squeezes in some swipes at celebrity culture and some social stereotypes – which dilutes the focus somewhat. For another, as targets of satire, these issues seem to me quite well-worn, and I’m not sure that this tale says much about them that is fresh.

This is not to say, though, that ‘Ronnie’s Dream’ has no bite. Some aspects certainly have, such as the Blair-figure’s stock speech (‘By my actions have I answered questions. The time has come for an end to talking…’ [p. 68]), which is repeated until ground down into empty rhetoric. In addition, the contrast between the poetic style of Griffiths’ narration and the more modern, colloquial dialogue is very effective; and there’s general interest in seeing how the author adapts details of the myth for the present day.

Griffiths’ second novella is ‘The Dream of Max the Emperor’; originally the story of Maxen Wledig, a Roman emperor who goes (or sends his men) in search of a beautiful woman he saw in a dream, here Max is a Cardiff crime boss. He eventually finds his beauty in north Wales, but all is not as it seems; for example, the castle in his dream turns out to be a film set. This theme goes deeper into the story; one of Griffiths’ best effects in the novella is the way he portrays the Wales outside Cardiff as a place that’s as strange to Max’s men as any land of myth would be:

They travel out of the city limits and each one feels a small falling-off as they enter a land they don’t recognise, through valleys between dark slag-mountains and past heaps of refuse and rotting industrial machinery, past rusting pitheads and smelters and quarries and all of it a-crumble. Over a plain. Across big green bumps on the world’s face. (p. 127)

Something that both Griffiths and Lewis manage to do in their respective books is evoke a true sense of fantasy, the disquieting and disorienting sense that (at least within the pages of the book) the world is not as you thought. In doing so, they show just how much vitality these myths still have.

Elsewhere
Seren Books
Gwyneth Lewis’s website
Sam of Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood reviews The Meat Tree
Annabel Gaskell reviews The Dreams of Max & Ronnie and The Meat Tree
Paul Kincaid reviews the first two New Stories from the Mabinogion for Strange Horizons

This review (half of it, anyway!) is posted in support of ‘women and sf’ week at Torque Control.

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