A brief introduction and a few shared thoughts on chapters 1-4
“No other country but Wales could spawn the mind that could create such a work.”
One Moonlit Night (Un Nos Ola Leuad), Caradog Prichard’s melodious Welsh-language novel, written entirely in local dialect, was first published in 1961. It is a haunting portrayal of life in Bethesda, a small North Wales town on the edge of Snowdonia and offers a bleak but beautiful child’s-eye depiction of rural existence during the First World War.
This extraordinary – some might say ‘odd’ – book, which in many ways recalls Under Milk Wood, was translated into English by Philip Mitchell in 1995. Chris Ross in The Guardian described it as “miraculously [conveying] the incantatory biblical and Celtic cadences of the original”, and indeed, his rendering brought this little-known contemporary classic to a far wider readership.
It is a slim volume containing fifteen tales, all of which are set in and around “the Village”, and within whose pages you will encounter insanity, suicide, sadism, death, domestic violence, fornication and epilepsy, to name but a smidgen of its contents. If it were published today, one suspects it would present the unwitting book critic with a hazardous minefield of trigger warnings.
In chapter I, we meet the unnamed narrator, a naïve, curious, and at times uncannily perceptive boy who lives with his widowed Mam (mother), to whom he is utterly devoted. He speaks in broad North Walian vernacular – which remains perceptible to some extent in the English-language version. Thus, you will still find untranslated Welsh words in the text, especially the frequently uttered “Dew” (pronounced du or dyu), an exclamation of exasperation or annoyance. A Welshism, if you like – defined by some modern-day wags as Wenglish.
Over this and the following three chapters, we follow the boy as he wanders the dim streets of his home town, sometimes with his best friend Huw, recalling the events of his life with a poetic tenderness. He comes across characters like Grace Ellen Shoe Shop, Frank Bee Hive, Little Will Policeman, Will Starch Collar, Price the School and a multitude of people named after their occupation, idiosyncrasy or some other befitting moniker. Common practice, even today, in parts of Wales.
In her 2009 afterword, the eminent Welsh historian, author and travel writer, Jan Morris, describes One Moonlit Night as “beyond rational analysis” and like “a sort of dream.” I’ve heard the book described as “Bethesda bildungsroman”, but it is also a full-flavoured confection of mental illness, religious zealotry and small-town parochialism – all shot through with plaintive lyricism.
The novel contains a great many biographical details, especially in relation to Prichard’s family and the seemingly hard-working, devout, politically aware rural folk of his childhood. In these esoteric musings, delivered as he makes his way to Pen Llyn Du, he ponders his troubled boyhood and recounts in a glorious prose-stream his memories of the people, events and slate-fields of his childhood. Recollections of a long-vanished way of life.
About the Author
Caradog Prichard (1904-1980) made his name in Wales as one of the writers of the Caernarfonshire quarrying district. Born and raised Bethesda, a tiny town and community on the River Ogwen, he spent his career as a journalist, eventually moving to London and becoming a sub-editor on the foreign desk at the Daily Telegraph. During this period, he penned four award-winning odes in addition to this remarkable novel. He remained in the English capital for the rest of his life.
“Dew, I heard the sound of Bob Cuenant’s fist like a Salvation Army Band drum hitting Owen Llan in the chest.”
Please share your thoughts on chapters 1-4 of One Moonlit Night and join me next week to discuss chapters 5-8 (plus other aspects) of this novel.
This is my thirteen choice for The Classics Club