Sunday, August 19, 2007

Whatever happened to that one guy?

One of the seminal novels of Welsh-language literature is Traed Mewn Cyffion, by Kate Roberts. The title literally translates to "Feet in Chains," but the book could just as easily be called "101 Things to Be Miserable About."

It is that kind of novel that so often appears on lists of classics, in that it is about miserably poor people living their miserably poor lives. These novels always annoy me and cause me to react like some sort of 1920s Tory, growling at the book: "What's wrong with you, man? Pull yourself together and make something of yourself, why don't you. What?"

To her credit, Kate Roberts tries to answer that question in the title and in a dialogue late in the book that was probably put there for stupid people like me that need things spelled out. In life we are bound to all kinds of things, we are chained to family and poverty and place and station and on and on. More often than not these bonds are mental, and more often than not the mental bonds are the hardest to break.

Oh, and World War I was a shit war.

Anyway, in the book, the character that stood out for me is one whose name I can't even remember at the moment. The eldest of the Gruffydd children, he basically gets written out of the story about halfway through. He is a sort of incidental character who spends all his time working or sleeping, thus demonstrating the exhausting monotony of working at a slate quarry. Then his character gets frustrated with life and demonstrates how hard it was to get people to join the union. Then he demonstrates that trying to get people to join the union was likely to get you the sack. Then he demonstrates that a lot of people moved down to South Wales to find work. Then he pretty much disappears. A few years later he is married and doing alright in the south and no more than a paragraph is spent on him.

The book carries on and everyone else is miserable and poor and can't ever seem to get a leg up and Sioned's a slag and Twm dies in the war and Owen spends several pages telling us how much life sucks and if we have anything in life we only have our family and war sucks the biggest suck that ever sucked because it kills your little brother and now you've got nothing and no one. So you might as well just sit there and smoke your pipe. And the book ends.

So the thing I found myself growling at the end was: "What about your older brother? Ay? He's still alive, what?"

But the older brother is out of sight, out of mind. Which is, I suppose, testament to Roberts' famed ability to capture real life. If you live far away from family, you quickly fade from the family picture. You become peripheral -- a family member by title only.

It's like this that the child bride has been feeling lately. She comes from a big family that revels in being a big family. When she calls to see how they are, she gets the sense that they are just fine. Without her. Not thinking about her. Not wondering how she is doing. Almost certainly they are wondering these things but they are difficult to convey over distance and phone calls that must conform to seven-hour time differences.

Meanwhile, I've been feeling lost in my own way. And I think a lot about George Berkeley who said that reality is simply God's perception. That's troubling since reportedly I am made in God's image and I have a shit memory. If God's memory is at all like mine, I am in woeful danger of ceasing to exist. I feel a terrible sense of needing to do something so as to be memorable, to make a mark, but not really feeling that I can or ever will. I feel fading.

Much like this post, the child bride and I feel as if we have lost the plot a little bit. There is homesickness and more and we're not really sure how to shake it. This is the drawback of setting off on far-away adventures, I suppose; sometimes you feel far away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The character you mention is William Gruffydd, the third child and eldest son.