Thursday, October 29, 2015

From Empty Harbour to White Ocean by Robin Llywelyn, translated by the author

From Empty Harbour to White Ocean
Robin Llywelyn
Translated by the author (from Welsh)
Originally published 1994, I read 1996 translation
157 pages, fantasy, myth

Many thanks to Parthian Books for providing a review copy of this novel.

Gregor arrives in a new country as a refugee, sneaking over the fence from the harbor when the soldiers aren’t looking. He has left his girlfriend Alice behind, to seek his fortune in this new land. But times here aren’t as good as he was expecting. After spending the first night on the street with a hobo and buying an expensive, badly forged identity card, he finds a small room to stay in until he finds work.

With the reluctant help of his landlord's son, Gregor finally manages to get a job at the Library working for the Du Traheus, the grumpy old man charge of the Mythology Department. It is very unclear what Gregor’s actual job is, but he soon volunteers to go to the North Country to retrieve Du Traheus’s adder stone. Thus begins his actual adventure, into the "backward" rural heartland of his new country where stories still have power.

Resistance and words

The North Country may be considered "backward" because of the limited use of technology, but its traditions are still very much alive. In the past tourists visited to experience the backwardness; now the army has come to pacify the inhabitants. As Gregor discovers, there is a large refugee crisis happening in the North Country, with a majority of the residents running away to the south and thence to the new world.

But some people are not willing to leave; it is their home and, more importantly, it is the source of their lore. As the Du Traheus explains, it is the words that are the most important – the stories.

“Sir,” said Gregor as he squeezed himself behind his desk, “is all the mythology in the world here?”
“No,” answered the Du Traheus. “Only words are here. They try to make me yield the rest but my words come from the North Country. They can’t be pinned down between book covers.”

It seems that the government is trying to take away the North Country's stories (and hence the inhabitants' way of life) to pave the way for less troublesome people to settle there. While it takes most of the novel to figure out what is going on, this story of a culture's resistance towards forced assimilation is compelling. I can't stop thinking about it.

I am confused by Gregor’s initial appearance as a refugee on these shores from which people are fleeing, though. There’s probably some symbolism that I am missing.

Mythology and dreams

This novel was hard for me to read. First, as my regular readers probably know, I am not a fan of dreamlike storytelling. This novel is full of constantly changing situations, people who randomly appear, illogical decisions, and so on. This confused and sometimes bored me.

However, this dreamlike storytelling method dose make some sense in the context of Celtic mythology. While I know some bits and pieces of Celtic mythology (thank you Lloyd Alexander and my childhood obsession with mythology), I do not have the knowledge necessary to really enjoy this book. I recognized some common themes, especially the way of telling the story and the series of trials that Gregor goes through. However, I often felt like I was missing some symbolic aspect of the novel that I would have understood with a more thorough knowledge of Welsh mythology.

I guess it’s good that this novel made me want to read more Welsh myths?

Another critique is that the translation could have been better. The author translated this version himself from the original Welsh, and it shows. There were several cases of awkward phrasing, making the English version lose the flow of the original Welsh.

Overall, this novel is worth reading if you like dreamy writing or have a good knowledge of Welsh mythology. Or if you want to explore the strangely compelling story of resistance through words.

From Empty Harbour to White Ocean can be purchased in the US from Amazon and IndieBound, in the UK from Amazon,  and worldwide from Wordery or Book Depository.  

Further Reading: 

"The Circus," a short story by the author (Words Without Borders) 
Welsh mythology from Sacred Texts
Chwedloniaeth Gymreig, a blog and online course on Welsh mythology by a Ph.D. in Welsh Literature

Want to see more reviews of world literature and film? Follow me on Twitter or like The Globally Curious's facebook page!

No comments:

Post a Comment