One Moonlit Night is the joint read for the 2020 Wales Readathon.
Caradog Prichard (1904-1980) wrote the novel in his first language, a Welsh dialect of north-west Wales. It was published in 1961 and wasn’t translated into English until 1995 by Philip Mitchell, who does a superb job of making it feel like you’re reading a dialect.
The novel is a coming of age story set in the mid-1910s. It’s narrated by an unnamed boy who lives with his mother in Bethesda, Wales which was a rural village at the time. Amid the beautiful landscape of this “simpler” time is crushing poverty, unchecked violence — particularly against girls and women — disease, religious fanaticism, football riots, and murder. The villagers live a hardscrabble life but as seen through the eyes of the young narrator, it can at times seem idyllic.
The lyrical passages contribute to lulling the reader into a sense of comfort, but then something will come up that’ll jerk you into reality. One of the narrator’s best friends is a boy named Huw. One day during church service they’re playing a pinching game, trying to make the other be the first to cry out. Huw eventually gouges the narrator’s hand so deeply with his fingernail that he still has a scar as an adult.
Not showing one’s pain is what the boys are learning from the adults around them and sometimes practicing on each other. There are other scenes of violence between friends and family members but nothing is explored in detail. It’s life. It’s the accumulation of often small doings that show how tender boys grow up to be hard men — some are “good” men, others not.
And there are tender scenes, too, some that’ll put a lump in your throat. But mainly you see how this boy is left to sort things out for himself, both little things and catastrophic events. Adults don’t explain things to him.
** SPOILER ALERT** Most heartbreaking is when he takes his beloved mother to the asylum. His grandmother is incapable of talking with him. She has the neighbors tell him what to do and even they in their kindness don’t say much other than that he’s to take his mother to meet the car. The only explanation the neighbor man offers is, “She’s in a weakenss.” There was a very different attitude toward mental illness at that time, yet you want to shake these adults for not talking with the boy or at least offering a hug.
At first, it was a bit hard to get into this novel, but once I got the hang of the language and its pacing, the reading flowed well. It’s a twisty story, more of a series of memories than plot-driven. While reading the last couple chapters and thinking I didn’t want the story to end, it took (another) dark turn. Admittedly, I felt a bit of relief when I turned the last page. I would have liked to have read more of Prichard’s poetic prose, but the story itself is painful. Yet there is humor and goodwill, so don’t be put off that it’s all gloom and doom. It’s also a short novel, just some 170 pages, yet feels epic.
Prichard’s writing (and the translation) can be so direct and pure that it made my heart ache. Other times I was confused, but I think that was the intention. The narrator is a boy trying to understand the adult things happening around him. Some of the scenes are poignant and relatable, others left me open-mouthed, at least once wondering if what I thought just happened really happened.
The novel is autobiographical which perhaps contributed to how tenderly I felt toward this boy. I’ve tried not to read much about this book until I wrote my own thoughts here, but I have read that some readers think the narrator is mad. So there’s that to ponder. I’m off now to read more about this fascinating novel.
One Moonlit Night was voted the Greatest Welsh Novel by a panel of experts and popular votes in 2014. Prichard’s writing is sparse and exquisite, and the story is unique. If you like to read novels from around the world, I highly recommend it.