I was really impressed by Alys Conran’s Pigeon. Published simultaneously in English and a Welsh translation, it was shortlisted for the 2017 Dylan Thomas International Prize (won by the Australian Fiona McFarlane for her book of short stories The High Places) and it would have been a worthy winner. It is, as the blurb says, “a coming of age novel that turns into something of a murder mystery”, but much, much more than that. Do you remember from your childhood the excitement and glamour of new words and the imaginative worlds they opened to you as you learned to read? Pigeon captures that magical time; but it shows us, profoundly, what a gap there is between that world and reality. I suppose growing up in a healthy way is about reconciling yourself to that difference. Conran uses the two languages, Welsh and English, very cleverly as a metaphor for the free world of the imagination and the constrained one of reality:
But slowly Pigeon learnt that English was a weapon, and could be a shield. You needed it in pristine condition, and you needed the tricks of it, so you could defend yourself. Your own language was a part of your body, like a shoulder or a thigh, and when you were hurt there was no defence. When the kids argued in Welsh at home on the hill it was a bare knuckled fight. But English. With English what you had to do was build armour, and stand there behind your shield to shoot people down. Pigeon buried his own language deeper and deeper in that armour. (131).
But there’s much more to the book than I can sketch here. Read it for yourself.
And now for something completely different, Gerard Reve’s The Evenings, a book about being very, very bored. “A masterpiece,” says The Guardian. “A cornerstone manqué of European literature,” says Tim Parks. Certainly it does exert a horrible fascination. I couldn’t put it down. Frits van Egters is like Gregor Samsa without the cockroach, living with his boring parents who are predictable to the point of caricature – only this is real life – doing a mindless job, drifting around in the evening with a variety of lukewarm friends, watching himself repeat the same set phrases and jokes with a kind of fascinated horror. This sounds grim, and it is, but it’s also very funny. You laugh and squirm and suffer simultaneously. Yes, it is a masterpiece.
Here’s a very good review of it: