Saturday, September 22, 2007

Expressed in language and about language (books - The Welsh Girl II)


I'm continuing to enjoy how The Welsh Girl's author, Peter Ho Davies, uses language to fashion his story, not just to relate it by description, or to evoke it with form - but language is itself a player in the story. The Welsh locals and the English - like the officers at the local POW camp, have a continual power struggle - they identify friend or enemy through language and accent, they can hide things from each other through language, they have notions of class that are tied to how they speak. Esther, the Welsh Girl of the title and the character through whom we experience the English/Welsh side of the story, was educated to speak beautiful English - a feature that makes her unusual among her compatriots. There is a parallel struggle between the German prisoners and their captors (here, the English/Welsh barrier dissolves and there is sudden national unity). Most of the soldiers do not speak English, but Karsten does and it is through his eyes we experience the part of the story told from the point of view of the Germans. Karsten and Esther form these dual voices - English and therefore understandable to the English reader, but something of an outsider to their own set.

There's a lovely scene in which Karsten knows he will soon be able to send a post card home to his mother, so he struggles to write something that will inform her but not worry her and will still reflect his situation honestly.
As a boy, one of his jobs around the pension had been to carry the guests' mail to the post office. He liked to practice his reading skills with the cards, trying to recognize the town and the landscape, which he took for granted, in the exuberant descriptions. Glorious weather. Spectacular views, Charing locals. He wondered if he would see his world this way if he was at leisure...

Karsten's struggle to write a satisfying line in the POW camp takes hours. When he finally produces one sentence he can live with he is exhausted...
Schiller starts to saunter on, down the alley of tents, but turns back, fishes in his tunic pocket. "Almost forgot. They were issuing these outside the mess." He hold out a bright square of paper, and after a second Karsten takes it. It's a Red Cross postcard.

He watched Schiller amble off, then turns the card over in his hands. It's already preprinted with a curt message:

Dear __________:
This is to inform you that I am a prisoner of the British/American/Soviet forces.
My health is poor/fair/good.
Sincerely/Love, __________________

He's furious at these words, thrust in his mouth like a gag. But then, he realizes, he's hardly been able to think of much more to say for himself despite his agonizing. He's reminded again of those postcards of his mothers' guests - delightful, lovely, charming - their repetitious, interchangeable sentiments, and he's suddenly relieved by the anonymity of the card before him, the impersonality.

This is a struggle not only expressed in language but its subject is language. Often when writers write about writing it bugs me. But Karsten and Esther's relationships to language are well developed and become tools to further the story in Davies' deft hands, rather than to detract from it. I enjoyed how Karsten's relationship to these same words could, in the space of seconds move from prison to freedom. It makes me think of what I wrote about the actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo in the my other post this morning on the film Zodiac. Gyllenhaal would be freed by a printed postcard - his acting can be open when it is empty of choice but it is never quite original. Ruffalo 's seems all choice - even if it was printed for him, the way he wrote in the spaces and circled his choices would be original and would communicate more than was printed.

I hope to have enough reading time in between my studying to finish this lovely book this weekend.

1 comment:

verbivore said...

This sounds fascinating - I love books that manage to write about how language changes our reality. I am definitely going to be looking for this one.