Around the middle of January 2011, feeling somewhat restless of spirit, I was moved by a strong urge to travel. Before Christmas, as the days shortened, I would sit at my desk, daydreaming for hours about the places I might escape to. These were not, of necessity, virgin beaches caressed by a Mediterranean sun; indeed, I should have been quite as content to make for some place where winter, for once, really meant winter, although in truth it was quite cold at home at the time and we’d had the first fall of snow for years. By mid-January, that snow had all melted but my eagerness to travel remained undiminished. Nor was my research work progressing well enough to keep these ruminations at bay. It was, in any case, difficult to re-establish a routine after the inactivity and indulgence of Christmas. That year, too, getting back to normal was even more of a struggle than usual because I was gripped in the final agonies of a dying relationship.
A tight, immovable knot in the stomach precluded all attempts at concentrated work. Fearing that, in such circumstances, I might easily descend into a spiral of self-pity, it was tempting simply to take my leave without breathing a word to anyone and have the satisfaction of raising two fingers at the whole sorry mess. As with so many of those idle dreams that weighed me down from time to time, I lacked the courage or the fortitude to bring this departure to fruition. I remained at my desk, poring wearily through my books, trying not to look through the window, where I could see the blanket of cloud that had lain heavily on the peaks of Snowdonia for many weeks.
There was, however, an alternative means of escape. I had for some years been assembling ideas for a novel. Its seed had been planted during my undergraduate days when, with the zeal of a young, idealistic nationalist, I immersed myself in the literature of militant – even violent – revolution. Reading such works, both fiction and non-fiction, stirred in me a desire to write an equivalent story of my own. This would be set in Cardiff, where I was studying at the time. I was, of course, aware of the lack of any real political imperative or context for such an enterprise, although I did, occasionally, when the spirit moved me, attend the odd rally or protest in pursuit of similar insurrectionary objectives in Wales. My ardour always waned after a day or two. Indeed, in embarking on my project, I almost found myself envying those embattled peoples of the middle east, rising up against their governments in what was already being called the Arab Spring.
This response, while of course quite obnoxious, was not wholly unfamiliar to me. I had felt something similar whilst watching Hedd Wyn and other films about the First World War: a trace of envy, despite the carnage, because my own generation had no just war to fight, no altar on which to sacrifice its youth, or, indeed, any other means of proving its valour, of demonstrating to the world that it had answered the call to arms and would bravely suffer the consequences. And whilst I found such ideas absurd and abhorrent, I confess that I succumbed to their seduction. Looking back on those times, I suspect that my resolve to write a novel was an attempt, by creative means, to compensate for such aberrations. And it was precisely because of their absurdity that I needed to set them in some kind of parallel universe, an alternative future, which at the same time would allow me to breathe imaginative life into my experience of Cardiff and the people I’d come to know there.
My ennui, alas, sapped any energy I had for such an undertaking. I was troubled, too, by increasing doubts about the legitimacy of the project and especially the futility, as an outsider, of my trying to speak on behalf of Cardiff or any of its inhabitants. Nor did I have an acquaintance with or understanding of combat, revolutionary or otherwise. I lacked even a reputation for schoolyard brawling. Realising that the whole basis of my projected story lay far beyond the reach of both my experience and my imagination, I was overcome by a paralysis of the mind, so that I became unable to work either on the novel or on my research. At the same time, however, I could not tear myself away from my computer screen, in case some flash of inspiration should arrive, unbidden, and depart again as swiftly as it had come.
Seeking respite from this impasse, I decided one day to call on my maternal grandparents. I would visit Nain and Taid as often as I could whenever I returned home to north Wales from college. I did so, not out of any sense of duty – although they were now well advanced in years and increasingly dependent on the support of family and friends – but rather because I derived great pleasure from their company. I enjoyed their stories. I enjoyed, in particular, Nain’s delicious cooking. And I was pleased, as we settled into our easy familiarity, when Taid and I could simply sit back and smile contentedly, in the knowledge that we understood each other. ‘We know what’s what, don’t we?’ he’d say. After our dinner we would go into the front room to watch television or chat. More than once I had realised that I should keep a record of the stories they told me on those occasions. Perhaps I was too lazy, or perhaps I feared that seeing me reach for a notepad or tape recorder would embarrass them or, still worse, remind them too bluntly of their advancing years. Whatever the case, I had not, up to that point, made the effort.
That afternoon, however, both of my grandparents, and especially Taid, were quieter than usual. Then, when we’d enjoyed a fine dinner of chicken, potatoes, vegetables, bread and butter, and washed the dishes and settled down with a cup of tea in the front room, it was the television that stepped in to fill the silence. After sitting through the news, followed by some trivia about antiques, I decided to bid my farewell. As I prepared to leave, however, Taid asked me to wait a moment. He got up slowly, without comment, and made for the study. I resumed my seat and looked to Nain for some explanation. She answered me with her own bemused gaze. Presently Taid returned with a dusty folder, held together by numerous elastic bands. He sat down, grunted a little and proceeded to remove the rubber bands and spool them onto his wrist. Nain, in the meantime, had been waiting with as much eager curiosity as myself. Now, however, as Taid opened an envelope, drew from it a folded card, then drew from that card a sheaf of papers, her face at once shone with recognition. He thumbed briefly through the papers, then turned to a small book that had lain beneath the other items. He nodded to me to come and take a look and I obeyed.
As I stood before him, Taid seemed suddenly very small. As he was, to my way of thinking, still a man of some physical strength, whose body bore witness to a working life harder than anything I had ever endured, it was difficult for me to see him reduced in this way, so easily contained between the arms of his easy chair. There was a hint of fear in his eye and his mouth skewed downwards as he said, ‘Take this.’ Perhaps I caught an element of supplication, too. I took the folder, secured once more with the rubber bands. Shortly afterwards, as I started my car and waved good-bye to my grandparents, themselves waving at the front room window, I began to realise the significance of this act and the intention that lay behind it. Taid would shortly be admitted to hospital for surgery and was fully aware, in his own unruffled way, of the attendant risks for one of his age. Although neither he nor Nain would ever admit as much, I sensed that the package had been given to me for safe keeping, just in case. But more than that, I felt that he wished me to make some kind of journey on his behalf: a journey which, I believed, he could no longer undertake himself.
On reflection, as I pieced together scraps of stories and rumours I’d heard as a child, I could remember that my grandfather’s brother, John, had been killed in the Second World War. I enquired no further at the time. Once I reached an age when I was curious to know more, I had lost my childhood audacity and was too reticent to ask. I was also, by then, too aware of my grandparents’ physical frailty (as well as their emotional vulnerability) to begin quizzing them. As I drove away from their house, the torn and battered package sat on the passenger seat at my side, enticing me to pull in, there and then, turn off the engine and uncover its secrets. There was little doubt in my mind, however, that the contents related somehow to John, or, rather, to ‘Taid’s brother’, as it seemed more natural to call him, and his untimely death − in Germany, as I then assumed − during the Second World War.
As I rounded the bend and climbed the hill to the main road, the bright orange lights ahead suddenly conjured the memory of a drunken night with my friend, Cynon. We were nineteen, travelling around Europe, and at that moment were making our way back from Munich, where we’d watched Brazil defeat Australia on the big screen in the OIympipark. Cynon, his shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘Cynon ♥ Deutsch’, had turned his ankle running across the bridge. I remembered the taxi driver who helped me carry him back to our car from the tree where he had sought shelter and had already fallen asleep, and then showed us the way to our hostel. That was the last time I had visited Germany but the memory then led me further back, to a family outing to Oberammergau, a mere hour’s drive from Munich, although in another age and another world, when I was quite a different person.
And I thought of Oberammergau because this quintessentially Bavarian town was for me, as a young boy, synonymous with the real Germany: a place of pine forests, nestled amongst high mountains, snow-capped even in summer, and the rain teeming around us without pause; the houses with their protruding gables and finely painted walls; and the ubiquitous cuckoo clocks which, in their distinctively Tyrolean way, made sure we never forgot the steady, unrelenting passage of time. But time in Oberammergau had another distinctive marker: its passion play. This was performed only once every ten years but was, nevertheless, the centrepiece and, it appeared, the raison d’être of the whole community: so much so that the town centre was wholly dominated by the theatre that had been constructed there solely for its performance. And this was the object of our visit: to witness the unique pageant, performed each day for five whole months and involving, in some way or another, each of the town’s citizens (and only that town’s citizens). 1634 had seen the first performance of the Passionsspiele – a depiction of the last stages of Christ’s life, from his entry into Jerusalem to his crucifixion and resurrection – in accordance with a vow made by the inhabitants of the village, that they would re-enact these events every ten years if God spared them from the plague that was ravaging the whole of Europe at the time. To this day I remember my delight – and that of my brother and sister – as Jesus made his way to the open-air stage astride a real donkey. I remember, too, some hours later, when the epic drama had broken for lunch, sitting near the back of the stage to eat our sandwiches and also in the hope that we might catch a glimpse of Caiaphas in his tall hat slipping to the toilet; and then, after returning to our seats in the auditorium, seeing the play’s climax, the actors drenched to the skin in the still teeming rain, the audience in tears as Christ was raised up onto his cross.
The price paid by the citizens of Oberammergau for this mercy was to re-enact and relive the precise moment of their salvation, not just once, but over and over again, so that it should never be forgotten. I tried to imagine how my parents had responded on their first pilgrimage here as a young married couple, some twenty years before sharing that overwhelming experience with me, and I wondered how different it seemed on their return. Some things had surely changed beyond recognition. Dragging three children behind them would have altered their perspective, too. Other things, however, must have remained largely as they were – as chillingly inexorable as the song of the cuckoo in its clock. I wonder whether my parents realised then how indispensable are such rituals, for the way they set, side-by-side, those two contrary forces – the eternally unchanging and the frighteningly new − in order to remember and give shape to the different stages in our lives. At Oberammergau, the story remained constant. Only the faces and the images changed. This is how the people of that place commemorated their past.
Although I was eager to open the folder and reveal its contents, and fully intended to do so once I had arrived home that evening, as soon as I crossed the threshold I was met by rich aromas from the kitchen, and saw that the table was already laid for supper, so I stowed the folder under my desk and hastened back downstairs. When I returned to my study, a few hours later, my curiosity had abated; I also had a headache from drinking too much wine. I therefore resolved to tackle Taid’s papers in the clear light of morning, when I could do them more justice.
By morning, however, it was the obligations of work that commanded my attention. Little by little, the folder disappeared from view, until it was finally quite hidden under a mound of paper and files.
When the author is given a small package, containing letters and papers relating to his grandfather’s brother, who was killed in Syria during the Second World War, it leads him on an extended personal journey. In trying to uncover and understand his Uncle John’s life and personality and the circumstances of his death, the narrator begins not only to realise more fully the human impact of wars but also to question and trace connections with his own experiences and feelings in the present and the past. Woven seamlessly together, these strands are patterned into the fabric of a more general exploration of history, imagination and the process of memory, shifting imperceptibly from autobiography to travelogue, from letters and diaries to official records, from text to visual image. The engaging, almost stream-of-consciousness, style draws us in, guiding us unerringly along unexpected paths through changing scenes, times and moods, now grounded, now dreamlike and mysterious. Yet nothing is accidental in this carefully crafted narrative: haphazard experiences and memories are gradually linked and reassessed, until finally a new narrative of the past emerges to inform and elucidate the present.
In his first prose work Lewis reveals a rare and consummate literary talent. Deeply rooted in his Welsh identity, this young writer locates his own and his family’s experience within the wider European world in a thoughtful, mature and highly original book.
'Mature, adventurous, intelligent.'
'A novel which attempts to document a period of great change, a coming to terms with mortality - a period not until now described or explored by a poet or writer with such intimacy and honesty.'