There is something very annoying about Jon Gower’s Uncharted. It confirms that he can write fiction. What ever the opposite of literary schadenfruede is, this is it. Gower is one of those prodigiously talented polymaths, yet of whom previously it could be said, his c.v. was incomplete, he hadn’t written a novel.
I have seen him interview ten writers at a single sitting without using any notes. I asked him how he did it. Just read the books, he replied, rather surprised at the question. He compeers literary events, he interviews writers in depth, but always there was that glint in the interviewee’s eye the knowledge that sets the practioner apart from the commentator – you talk as much as you want but I have produced the work. Now Gower has produced the work and a fine novel it is too. Reworked from the original Welsh-language Dala’r Llanw, this is his debut English language novel.
For a man whose mouth is never far from having something to say, it starts appropriately in La Boca, the mouth, of the River Plate. He lavishes attention on the river as a visual feast. The description is vivid and memorable: “mud on the banks can look like freshly cut liver, gigantic butchery”. So we begin with water and it is never far away during the rest of the story. The narrative is carried literary and figuratively by the sea. Birds too populate this book, as fitting for a man who has spent a large part of his life studying them, and significantly the first to get a mention is the albatross, doomed to carry more than its fair share of myth and imagining on its broad wing span. So we are in South America, and if Mathew Strecher’s definition of magic realism is anywhere near the mark, “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe”, is correct, then this is a significant contribution to that genre.
For it is indeed a magic story, one in which a paper boat sails with its unique cargo from Argentina to the major West Coast port of Oakland, San Francisco. The poverty and violence of South America is swapped for the North American version. The doomed elderly Argentinean couple become the warring young American marrieds, David and Elsbetha, whose relationship is being painfully torn apart by their inability to have children. From there the narrative moves to home where Wales is described almost in Dickensian terms with some stomach churning action taking place in the subterranean sewers of Cardiff. Always, however, the paper boat brings its redemptive powers.
Sometimes Gower’s prose is as smart-arsed and annoying as Martin Amiss. In other passages he lets the story unravel with the nightmarish qualities of a William Burroughs. His wit and mischievousness is never far away. I remember on one occasion he halted a public presentation I was making to query my pronunciation of the word pronunciation. Sharp, clever, flippant. But flippancy is not the trademark of this book. His description of the elderly couple, Horacio and Flavia and their dealing with the inevitability of her terminal illness is extraordinarily moving. Their speech borrows from the high passion and steeped sadness of the words of a traditional tango song, and they dance, too, their response to the inevitability of death is to dance with “heads held high like Andalusian royalty.”
Gower describes the breakdown of the Oakland couple’s marriage due to her inability to have children as if he’s posting bulletins from a war zone – not since Lorca has infertility been dissected so cruelly and dare I say it, so poetically.
Not only does he construct a novel which moves effortlessly between Buenos Aires, Oakland and Cardiff but endeavours and, to a great extent succeeds, in creating a new religion to boot. The structure is a satisfying triptych, the violence is beautiful and the beautiful is often violent.
Perhaps we have heard of bronchitic breath sounding like caged budgerigars before. However, this is an exception and generally the he prose is fresh and exciting. This is an original work which establishes Gower as a coming force. The questions he’s posing now are in the mind of the reader not the mouth of the interviewer and long may it continue.