09 September 2013

Review: Donal McLaughlin's 'Naw much of a talker', a Scottish-Swiss novel.

by Pedro Lenz, translated by Donal McLaughlin
Freight Books, 153 pp., £8.99, August 2013, 978 1 908754 22 6

As the title suggests, Donal McLaughlin's book is written in West-of-Scotland vernacular, a translation of Pedro Lenz's first Swiss-German novel, Der Goalie bin ig. Pedro Lenz himself, on his own website, describes the language he wrote the original novel in as Mundart, i.e. vernacular. In doing so he avoids using the word Dialekt to describe the language he writes in, just as McLaughlin has avoided the word 'dialect' to describe the language of the translation.
The question of whether we call McLaughlin's language dialect or vernacular will hopefully not interest most of his readers in the slightest; they might well just be hooked on and running through an understated, charming, stoical story. The question will continue to bother the minority of McLaughlin's readers who can speak -- and who occasionally write -- a language which one person will term dialect, another The Scots Language and a third 'demotic urban speech'. McLaughlin seems to have a savvy strategy, in the interviews he's given about the book: he's not limiting himself to a single, dominant concept when discussing the book's language. In one online interview however, he did distance himself from the word Scots, saying that he never learnt Scots at school, and implying that it's a concept that has little to do with him.

 It's an open question how reflective the novel's protagonist, Goalie, is, about the language he speaks, the language he tells us his story in. Goalie does know that he's eloquent, and distrusts his own eloquence. The story begins with him just out of jail after a year spent doing time for a heroin deal that he did not do, but which he also didn't want to inform either the police or the court about. He's trying hard not to use his silken tongue to get him back to places he's had enough of:
'Course, ah kid jist go oot an' arrange summit ... tell a few fuckin sob stories, soft-talk this yin or that yin ... nane ae that wid be a problem. Ahm the ''communicative type'', that wey at least ... The problem's jist: ah know aw that awready. An' that's naw whit ah want any mair, ah want an ordinary joab ....' i
Goalie gets his 'ordinary job' as a delivery-driver, then leaves it, without giving proper notice, to take the woman he's in love with, Regula, off to Spain, on a whim, on holiday. His narrative ends with him having left his rural home region of Switzerland, 'The Fog', for good, for an anonymous life as a deputy school janitor in the big smoke, Berne. He's now using heroin again, ‘Noo an' then, at weekends’; until that point he'd struggled successfully not to go back to using the drug.
The relationship with Regula didn't work out, and it didn't work out because Goalie and Regula have radically divergent understandings about how language constructs the self, and about how language could construct their relationship. The argument scene in which these different understandings are played out, occurs on the day before they have to travel back from Spain. It's excellently written. Regula is both beguiled by and made anxious by Goalie's incessant story-telling: 'She was convinced, ye see: wance I ran ootae stories, ahd nae longer love her.' So she accuses him, saying that, 'ah wis only talkin so as naw tae hiv tae listen. An' above aw, ah wisnae really talkin aboot masel at aw.' Goalie feels badly hurt, feeling Regula has failed to understand his linguistic core:
'Whit ye still hivnae got but is: ma stories ur part ae me ... Ah dont tell stories fur the sake ae it, ah tell them in an attempt tae keep up. If ah kidnae tell them life – makin sense ae it, anyhoo – wid be beyond me.'
Unable to bite it back, he goes straight from being hurt to striking out, and manages to end a beautiful affair in one stroke of witty verbal violence:
'An’ she gave it: there wisnae anythin concrete ... It wis aboot me showin mair willingness tae listen tae her.'
To which Goalie fatally responds:
'wis this a pre-emptive strike, or whit, oan her part? Wis she tellin me ahd tae be a better listener jist in case – at some future point – she wantit tae tell me summit?'
Donal McLaughlin's choice to use the vernacular to translate a novel originally written in a language most German speaking Swiss would concieve of as a dialect – if they thought about the question at all -- has been an appropriate and successful one. The use of the vernacular makes me think of all vernacular fiction I've read until now, a modest list indeed, and all in Scottish forms of language. In order of reading: Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting. Alan Warner, Morvern Caller. Lewis Grassic Gibbons, The Scots Quair trilogy. James Kelman, How Late it Was How Late. Of these, Alan Warner's and Lewis Grassic Gibbon's books function as Bildungsromane, while the other two are picaresque novels. I'd love to read a future novel in the vernacular by McLaughlin, either his original work or a translation, where the verancular is used as a vehicle for a Bildungsroman, or, on a totally different slant, for a modernist, experimental novel, and not for a picaresque novel. I'm not saying that I think a Bildungsroman is a 'higher' form than a picaresque novel. Wouldn't believe such rubbish for a minute. I am saying that when the vernacular is used in fiction, it's predominantly used to narrate picaresque novels, and there will be enough readers of Scottish veranculars who long to see it doing entirely different things. Donal McLaughlin is, in any case, too good a writer to allow the vernacular canon, or any other historical convention, limit the development of his fictions. Just like his protagonist, Goalie, actually, he is really quite a talker, indeed.

i Naw much of a talker, p.10.

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