I think it probable that Caradog Prichard's One Moonlit Night is the first (translated) Welsh language novel I've ever read. It follows, I suppose, that it is the best Welsh language novel I've ever read; but the likelihood is that, had I read ten, it would still be the best. This unassuming, subtly jacketed edition from Canongate has plenty of plaudits on the cover, an introduction by Jan Morris and an afterword from Niall Griffiths, but nothing is preparation for the book itself. First published in 1961, but not translated into English until 1995, it is an esoteric, poetic acid trip of a novel - mercurial, non-linear and hallucinatory - and barely comparable with anything in my experience. It has roots in the modernist search for clarity, but it isn't modernist; it is has a finger in the post-modernist pie, with its shocking honesty, but it isn't post-modernist. No point pigeon-holing it to a movement though; it has a literary power all its own.
It is ostensibly the childhood reminiscence of an unnamed boy in Bethesda - a small Welsh town founded on the fragile economy of a slate quarry - in the early twentieth century. He is raised by his widowed mother, living hand to mouth on parish money and the kindness of neighbours; stealing mushrooms and apples from fields and walking scenic miles to pick free mountain fruit. His best friends are Huw, mischievous adventurer and Moi, sickly entrepeneur; his teacher is Price the School, who wields the rod with a nostalgic sternness; and the love of his life is Ceri, the older daughter of the town's clergyman. It sounds like a paradise on paper, but it couldn't be further from it. In the first thirty pages our protagonist has been witness to suicide, domestic abuse, child molestation, a half-wit flasher, a woman committed to a lunatic asylum, a corpse and an eviction. His lived experience is inherently tragic, shot through with desperation and horror, but is related in the quirky, quasi-autistic patois of a child. It is beautiful and terrible:
And the three of us were creeping back to the door, and what did we see but Moi's Uncle Owen holding her hair with his left hand and pulling her head right back so you could see all her throat and Moi's Mam had her arm round him as though they were lovers. She was holding the bread knife tight in her fist and he had the tuck knife from the dresser in his right hand, with the blade on the side of Moi's Mam's throat, like Johnny Edwards Butcher sticking that pig when we went to the slaughter house yesterday to ask for a bladder to play football with.
It becomes clear as time passes (as much as it does pass in the boy's disjointed memories) that his child's voice is overlaid with that of his unstable adult self, wandering through Bethesda town on a night jaunt. His journey takes him, place to place and memory to memory, from the age of eight to sixteen (or thereabouts) and charts his gentle slid into insanity, an insanity from which he apparently does not recover.
The abiding memories of the book, however dark, are tinged with an effervescent sweetness. The boy and his friends watching a contentious football match that ends in turf slinging; a week spent swimming and working with his elder cousin Guto (later killed in the first war); a visit to his grandmother that ends with an unexpected gift of a basket of ham, bread and cheeses. The latter he believes is a miracle sent in response to his fervent prayers in Chapel:
Our Father, I said, which art in Heaven, give us this day a big plateful of potatoes and roast meat, and a big bowl of rice pudding, and lots of raisin bread, and all sorts of currant cakes and jam tarts, and lots of cheese, and ham and eggs, and mushrooms for breakfast, and a new suit for Whitsun, and lots of money to spend... for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
These parts are filled with a bittersweet nostalgia for Caradog Prichard's own childhood, which shares more than a passing resemblance to the boy's. While his writing is full of the sour depression of his early life and the unforgiving harshness of Bethesda's poverty, it has its simple pleasures and little kindnesses. The boy is overcome with gratefulness, for example, when Humphrey Top House, a friend of his mother's, comes back from 'the sea' and gives him the gift of a trick knife that folds into its handle. 'Lor, your a kind man!' he exclaims. And he would hardly be fed at all were it not for the many slices of bread and butter offered to him by kindly women with husband's at the quarry. All of which makes his personal disintergration all the more pitiful. You want and expect the happy ending for him - poor boy makes good - but alas...
The boy's mother stands at the centre of the book, a lodestone for love and concern. Like Prichard, the boy lost his father in a quarrying accident when he was just a baby, and his mother has struggled, scrimped and abased herself since then, accepting other people's meat bones to boil up for soup. She takes in laundry for the local clergyman until he dies - and there are hints that there may be an unrequited romance with them - and relies on her son to poach salmon and boost potatoes and contribute to the household economy with charity pennies. The boy's grandmother is a support to her - a kind of archetypal figure in the boy's mind, 'about ninety' he estimates - but there is no other family to help. There is a brother, Uncle Will, but he is a drunk and a rover. He may or may not be hanged for murder - it is difficult to tell, given the disoriented dreamscape of the narrative. Their life is symptomatic of an early 20th century destitution: in the warm arms of neighbours, under the cold fist of the parish. Like her son she is worn down by it, until she is chased by imaginary demons into the sort of destitute madness so common in early twentieth century asylums.
Whether or not the boy's story is real or imagined, whether or not his uncle is hanged, or his mother is sent a basket of food from heaven, it is still extroadinary. No doubt it is a book about the joy and the sorrow of it, life. There are writing enough to smile at.
It was the middle of winter, and it had been snowing all night. In the morning before going to school, Id been busy making a pathway through the snow from the door of the house to the middle of the lane and then helping Ellis Evans Next Door and the others to make a pathway down the Hill before they went to work in the Quarry. The snow was reaching higher than the front room window and I thought we'd be buried alive when I woke up. After we'd cut a path down the Hill, there were two high walls of snow on each ide and neither Ellis Evans nor Humphrey Top House could see over them, never mind me. By schooltime, the Hill was like a sheet of glass between the two big walls of snow. Watch you don't fall going down the Hill, chick, said Mam. I won't, I said as I went out through the door. But before I got to the middle of the lane, there I was with my legs in the air and my head on the ground. I felt like some young animal trying to walk for the first time. Luckily Mam had closed the door, and didn't see me come a cropper.
This is a fine lesson in a) how to cope with snow (which we clearly need, given the chaos caused by 3 inches of the white stuff this last week), b) how to write about it. Prichard's writing is succinct and tonally very clear, yet whimsical and oblique. He is the kind of storyteller who shocks with his blase attitude toward nastiness, but in such a way as to normalise everything. Nothing, you imagine, is shocking to this little boy who watches the world wobble, break apart and rebuild itself on a daily basis.
In her foreword Jan Morris recalls meeting Caradog Prichard in a Fleet Street wine bar in the 1950s. By that time he was the sub-editor of The Sunday Telegraph and Morris remembers an amiable, gregarious and middle-aged man. He made little impression until she read One Moonlit Night ten years later and recalled the ordinary-seeming journalist who had written this 'esoteric masterpiece'. She imagines him concealing the bizarre, frightening disparateness of his childhood under that placid exterior and writing it out in his one, great novel. In doing so she thinks (and I think too) that he has captured an essential flavour of everyday experience, and shown quite clearly that there is no such thing as ordinary.