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Review of Melog by Mihangel Morgan, translated by Christopher Meredith (Seren 2005)

Melog is a novel with a rich cast of characters, but the only two who really matter are Melog himself, an avatar of that perennial literary type, the Mysterious Stranger Who Changes Lives, and "Dr" Jones, the hapless protagonist whose life is changed. Dr Jones is a failed academic on the dole, devoting his middle years to somewhat nebulous study of the vast 19th-century tome, The Welsh Encyclopedia. At least, however, this is a real book, whereas the one for which Melog spends most of the novel searching, The Imalic, may well exist only in his imagination, as may several other things like his country and his history.

Melog is a young man, emaciated, with striking blue eyes and unusually white skin and hair, whom Dr Jones first sees theatening to throw himself off a high building. He's thus in an accidentally rather angelic pose (he is also stark naked) and Dr Jones' first impression, indeed, is that Melog is extra-terrestrial. True, the first request an angel makes is not usually to be taken to the nearest chip shop, nor are they generally portrayed as habitual liars, thieves and fantasists.

But an "angel" is a messenger, and the function of these characters in literature tends to be to bring people news of themselves. In this, Melog is in a long tradition indeed; quite apart from his Welsh antecedents, in English literature he is very reminiscent of at least two Melville characters, the Confidence Man and Bartleby, while David, the protagonist from Robert Alan Jamieson's Da Happie Laand (Luath, 2010) is proof that the tradition of the Mysterious Stranger carries on after him. There's a lot more to be said about this aspect, which I rather fancy doing in a later and more lit-critty post, but examining literary precedents and successors, for all its interest, doesn't really tell you whether you're likely to enjoy the book at hand, which is after all what reviews are for.

Basically Melog is an exasperating if engaging character who leads the timid doctor out of his habits and on quests which look almost, but infuriatingly not quite, certain to be wild goose chases. This book is very concerned with the fluid boundary between truth and fiction, which it crosses and recrosses with alarming ease. Since, like Dr Jones, we can never be entirely certain of what is going on, it is easy to enter into his combined excitement, bewilderment and fear. This cocktail can sometimes be fiercely comical; Melog is both deeply serious and sometimes very funny, as when Melog turns up in a car and invites Dr Jones for a spin:

Dr Jones pressed a little black button like a round sweet and the car flooded with lovely music. Unfortunately, because he was worried that he might soon be dead, Dr Jones could not relax into the luxurious leather seat or gaze at the landscape or listen to the entrancing songs. Trying to settle his nerves, he said –
I didn't know that you liked the songs of Schumann.
Is that what this stuff is? Melog said.
What do you mean? Dr Jones said. He felt the sweat on his forehead grow cold.
I haven't heard this music before, Melog said, overtaking a lorry at terrifying speed.
So what's the disc doing in your car? Dr Jones asked. He sneaked a look at the speedometer and saw the needle touching one hundred and ten miles an hour.
It's not my car, Melog said.
Melog. Whose car is it?
I don't know.
What? You've stolen this car?
I don't look on it as theft, Melog said, slowing to 90 miles an hour to take a corner. I look on it as a loan. (The wheels went over a hedgehog.) All property is theft, as they say.
In his extreme terror Dr Jones gripped the soft deep sides of his seat with all his strength.
Pity I didn't pick an automatic though, isn't it? Melog said. Bet it's a lot easier than having to change gears.
When did you pass your test?
Oh, I haven't taken the test.
Melog, Dr Jones said, his face white as Melog's hair, how many driving lessons have you had?

In some ways this terrifying drive, with each bit of revealed information increasing the anxiety, is a microcosm for the novel. But unlike Dr Jones, we do have time to study, and become fascinated by, the landscape of shifting fact, fiction and imagination. Mihangel Morgan has written an erudite novel of intricate concerns and questions – its epigraphs are all concerned with the nature of truth - but he never forgets, in his quest, the need to create convincing characters and places and tell a good story. I love this novel; if it has taken me years to get around to reviewing it, that is partly because it is one you see more in, each time you come back to re-read it.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-06-20 09:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That sounds fascinating and something I'd enjoy, but is speech rendered like that all the way through? I do find quirky punctuation or writing styles distracting unless the story transcends it as did Feersum Endjinn once I got used to it.


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