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Hughesovka revisited

Finding the concept of Welsh Noir rather appealing, I’ve been meaning to get round to reading Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth novels, featuring gumshoe Louie Knight, for some time. But it was only when I picked up a copy of the latest addition to the series, From Aberystwyth With Love, that I realized its true significance. I had anticipated the possibility of a Russian(ish) theme from the title, but I wasn’t expecting a novel about Hughesovka, the steel town in Ukraine founded in the 1870s by the Welsh entrepreneur John Hughes and initially populated by Welsh workers (see my previous post for more on this story and the Merthyr connections that drew me to it). Welsh patterns of emigration are a fertile source for the imagination (Patagonia features elsewhere in Pryce’s books, and there’s also the recently released film about the Welsh colony there), and the oddity that is Hughesovka really allows Pryce to go to town. But the book has a good deal more than that to recommend it. I like its style, its combination of traditional beliefs and seaside tat, its absurdism that is not only played for laughs (although it is brilliantly funny in places), but is also part of the novel’s philosophical questions about human nature and the meaning of life.

From Aberystwyth with Love really does begin at the beginning, with a rewriting of the story of creation from the first book of Genesis. This may seem slightly spurious at first, but it eventually becomes clear how it fits into the book’s logic. And just when you’re wondering how we’re going to get from creation to the plot, it segues neatly into the arrival of Uncle Vanya.  No, not that one – this Uncle Vanya is a Gulag survivor (from Kolyma, no less – I believe I hear echoes of Shalamov in some of the stories he tells) and a former curator at the Museum Of Our Forefathers’ Suffering in Hughesovka, and he come to Louie Knight with a strange case that connects his daughter to the Welsh homeland… I don’t want to give away too many details, but suffice it to say that, among many other things, bearded ladies, spinning wheel salesmen, an imaginary friend and the Soviet space programme all play a part.

When we finally get to Hughesovka to solve the mystery (and I must say it was a little too long in coming, and a little too brief when it arrived), it is a bleakly Soviet place where ‘the streets had been originally laid out according to the street plan of Merthyr Tydfil’ (p. 218) and every other street is named after John Hughes (I was strongly reminded of Swansea’s obsession with naming things after Dylan Thomas – incidentally that was where I bought the book). The security services are still arresting people at the drop of a hat, while the Welsh Underground (members include Evans the Swindler, Morgan the Enemy of the People and Jones the Deviationist Heretic) keeps memories of Wales alive through samizdat and helps people escape back to the motherland. Both here and in the scenes in Aberystwyth of Uncle Vanya and Louie drinking vodka, I gained a real sense of an affinity between the Russian (okay, I know, Ukrainian) and the Welsh soul that had never really occurred to me before.

I like Pryce’s vision because he takes the almost mythical story of Hughesovka’s origins and combines it with aspects of the Stalinist past to produce a world that is at once coherent and absurd. There’s no pretence of realism or accuracy – I have no doubt that his Hughesovka bears no resemblance to Donetsk today or indeed at any point – so the book doesn’t become implausible in the way that, say, Child 44 does. It takes its flights of fancy and bizarre connections to the limit and the result is clever and original. Even though parts of it are quite dark, I haven’t had so much fun reading a book in a long time. I shall certainly be reading the other books in the series, and would strongly recommend them to other people (even if they’re not Welsh).

Postscript: Shakhtar Donetsk have just drawn Barcelona in the quarter finals of the Champions League. In honour of those intrepid Welsh steel workers who moved to Ukraine, and the members of the Hughesovka Welsh Underground yearning for the motherland, all Welsh support should be with the ‘moles’ of Donetsk.

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  1. Martin Barlow

     /  July 10, 2011

    Being Welsh myself I can vouch for the fact that as a tiny nation we are perhaps understandably fascinated, some might say obsessed, with the marks Welsh people have made on the outside world, and ‘Gwladfa’ in Patagonia and Hughesovka are probably the most unlikely instances of this – Welsh place names in Pennsylvania, including Bryn Mawr College, are another. I have enjoyed Pryce’s other Aberystwyth works but had somehow missed the publication of this one, so thanks for bringing it to my attention here (and for the previous post about ‘Dreaming A City’).

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