One Moonlit Night, Caradog Prichard’s only lyrical Welsh-language novel, has been re-released in this new edition. The novel is a haunting conjuring of the bleaker and more disturbing features of daily life in Bethesda, a small village in North Wales, during World War One. Retaining Philip Mitchell’s sympathetic 1995 English translation, it also includes two new contributions by Jan Morris and Niall Griffiths, both of which convincingly convey why this is (quite rightly, albeit belatedly) recognised as one of the greatest Welsh, and indeed British, novels of the twentieth century.
Comparisons with Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood are perhaps inevitable, and not necessarily invalid, but the tragi-comic twists of a deeply troubled boyhood in the contexts of a disintegrating family life and a suffocatingly small community are also suggestive of those influences from across the Irish Sea, such as Francie Brady in Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy. At the core of both are the boys’ relationships with their depressed, disturbed mothers and their empathy – and fear – for them.
Unflinching in its account of poverty, grief and insanity, as witnessed by the unnamed boy narrator, and remembered by his much older self, One Moonlit Night lurches the reader into a gothic, grisly world, yet the rare slivers of beauty that are to be found are evoked with such grace that it is ultimately a tender and very moving tale. As we are gradually introduced to the community, characters such as Frank Bee Hive, Johnny Beer Barrel, Will Starch Collar, Mister Vincent the Bank, Grace Ellen Shoe Shop, Bob Milk Cart, Price the School, (the nicknames necessitated by the lack of diversity in Welsh surnames) capture the unnerving variety of strange and sad lives that a small village can contain.
“Auntie Ellen was a nice woman,” he relays matter-of-factly, “but I never saw her laugh. Even when she was talking happily, she had a sad look about her. And her mouth always looked as though she was complaining about something. And Catrin, my cousin, Guto’s little sister, was sitting in the corner as usual, not speaking to anybody. Catrin had burned her face when she was a little girl when a kettle fell off the fire and scalded her, and her face looked terrible with the skin all shiny and pink and wrinkled. She never went out or said how are you to anyone even though she was nearly 15. She just sat by the fire all day reading or knitting stockings.”
To translate an almost hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness piece is no easy feat and one for which Mitchell must be commended. In his translator’s note, Mitchell writes that he felt that by “tuning in to the sounds of the words” he could instill “the same strong feelings that the original work evokes in the Welsh reader.” These feelings are not always entirely comfortable. Violence and abuse are two consistent currents – Bethesda’s less salubrious residents include a sadistic teacher and a child-abusing transvestite – which first become visible on a moonlit night when our narrator and his best friends Moi and Huw unintentionally observe a hidden side to their small village life and their childish innocence is replaced with a shocking discovery of a very adult, very lurid world.
Then, over the course of a year, the narrator loses Moi to tuberculosis while his only other close friend, Huw, moves away with his family to the south. This loss of friendship is compounded when his mother leaves soon after, headed for the lunatic asylum. This leitmotif of madness and loss is material that was surely autobiographically mined. Prichard’s father died when he was under six months old, and as a teenager, Prichard took his mother to the Denbigh Mental Hospital where she remained for over thirty years. Whatever the weight of Prichard’s own early life on this often-unsettling tale, it is a redoubtably brilliant work of fiction.