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The Articulate Cruelty of Men

By Anna MacDonald.

Cynan Jones

What if it is better to remain silent than to speak? This is one of the questions that has been troubling me as I reread Welsh author Cynan Jones’s novels The Long Dry, Everything I Found on the Beach, The Dig and Cove. What is the purpose of putting pen to paper, of muddying the clean page?

Purpose is at the heart of Jones’s work: the need for it, the terrible want for it when it’s missing. His novels are peopled with farmers and fishermen, men and women who have inherited “a sureness of purpose [that] can only come from having a defined role and not questioning it”. Others amongst his characters – badger baiters, drug runners – also have a defined role, but lack that “sureness of purpose” that, for Jones, is intimately associated with responsibility and respect (for people, animals, the land). These men are, to borrow Jones’s term, “instruments” of some larger and even more brutal system, one characterised by factory farming and the horrific waste of meat (which is to say, the horrific waste of life) associated with it: “The supermarkets, for example, would want lamb chops, so [the abattoir would] extract the chops and send them on down to the packing line and the rest of the sheep would be tossed, and the dye thrown on it.” This web of quotas and bureaucratic regulations disadvantages small farms, giving “the grant people” the power to make decisions about land that does not belong to them, and to which they have no deep connection. It is a system that depends upon the exploitation of migrant labour which, under the guise of freedom of movement, transplants desperate Polish farmers to ghettos on the Welsh coast, in the process rendering them beholden to agencies that keep them trapped, fearful and ineligible for the benefits that should be their due. Ultimately, this is a system that seeks to devolve purpose, decision-making and responsibility away from the one who acts, to make them believe they are powerless in the face of some nebulous other (the Market, the European Union – Jones puts paid to the lie that free movement benefits everyone equally). “There’s four walls round all of us and some screw who pushes a tray through the door,” says Stringer, one of the criminals in Everything I Found on the Beach. This is a system that, if we let it, would make instruments of us all.

Everything I Found on the Beach

What prevents one from becoming an instrument is a sense of purpose, acknowledgement of the consequences of one’s action and the acceptance of associated responsibility. In The Dig, Daniel, a sheep farmer made wretched by grief and exhaustion, nevertheless retains “a feeling of strength – of a reserve of strength; like he could give more, whether tired or not, that this thing is of purpose utmost”. Likewise, of one of the protagonists in Everything I Found on the Beach, Jones writes:

That was a very strong thing in Hold: his belief that a thing should not die nor be hurt without purpose. … Though he fished and shot, this was for a purpose and that he was engineer of the hurt inevitable he felt with great responsibility and that was a great driving force in him. It gave him a respect for life and for the right of things to exist. He felt we had come too far from this.

Hold’s belief in purpose and responsibility is juxtaposed with the thoughtless slaughter at the abattoir where Grzegorz and other Polish migrants are employed according to an arrangement reminiscent of indentured labour. Like Hold, Grzegorz has inherited a responsibility – what he describes as a “gratefulness” – to the animal that is killed for food.

The waste [at the abattoir] was difficult to accept. He thought woefully of how his grandparents would be horrified by the wasteful policies of the place, of the perfectly good meat that was thrown away here… Grzegorz thought of the animals butchered in the old kitchen, the pig hanging from its sinews by the big iron hooks and his grandfather’s saw cutting down through the ribs, the collected pudding of the blood, the rich, powerful smell of the fresh offal on the woodfired stove. ‘This gratefulness to an animal,’ he thought, ‘is what’s gone here. There is a sorrow for it, as there always is, but it is without gratefulness and eventually you just go numb to it. It’s the way you have to feel about crowds of people, about strangers. You can’t care for them. You can’t let yourself. There’s too many of them.’

This alignment of the treatment of animals with the treatment of human beings is a common thread in Jones’s work. In Everything I Found on the Beach, it unfolds via the portrayal of cattle going to slaughter and the instrumentalisation of desperate men like Grzegorz who are also “herded like cattle” – first by the agency to which he is bound, then by the drug runners he works for in an attempt to buy his freedom. In The Dig, the alignment is articulated in the subtle, symbolic association of the novel’s protagonists with other animals. Daniel becomes associated with a black lamb that he tries to revive when superstition requires that it be sacrificed “should the Devil come”. And, at the end of that novel, the badger-baiter’s experience is mirrored in the badger’s own terror and confusion of being trapped. In The Long Dry it is the land and those who live on it that come to reflect each other. The earth is dry and, like the marriage at the centre of the novel, “the flowering is over now”.

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When I question whether it is better to remain silent than to speak, I am thinking of my own purpose in writing, not Jones’s. It may be that this question is prompted by the difficulties associated with writing about work that is self-contained. Like much prose that leans towards the allegorical, Jones’s novels seem to be complete in and of themselves.

I could speak of omens, portents, superstitions. Of talismans against the evil eye which are unsettling because they give life to an evil we need protecting from; of a wren’s feather, which according to Celtic legend guards against lightning: lightning, which “is not the strike. It is the local effect of the strike.” Of swallows and spider crabs that arrive “strangely early” – a local effect of global warming? And of geomagnetic storms that trigger epileptic fits, strokes and heart attacks, that cause “the electric things” in our bodies to go “wrong”, that render the local world dry but which “experts” refuse to acknowledge are connected to “the sudden change of things”.

I could speak of our ancient attachment to place, the ancient rhythms of life and work on the land: “The hold of the land on the people who grew up here. The hold of a meaningful place.” A hold that can also feel like a trap. There are “place[s that] can remember”, their histories inscribed on the shape of the land, the division of its fields. There are generations of shearers whose bodies, via the inheritance of repeated movements, are “made only for this purpose”. There are moments when, during the lambing season for instance, while assisting a sheep at labour, Daniel understands his connection to those who have done this before him – “the ancientness of this thing he does, that he could be a man of any age” – as well as his connection to the ewe herself:

There is an understood geography, familiar and mammal, as if some far back thing guides his hands about the lamb inside her, understands the building of the baby, this thing he does, which could be repellent, comfortable to him somehow, the warmth, the balloon warm and lipid. It is only visually there is shame. The fluids and motherly efforts are beyond that, too ancient for shame, and he understands a great and vital force at work, equanimical with his instinct and assured.

I could speak of life – that vital force in all of us. But equally, I could speak of the instinct toward violence; of brutality, and the deliberate, “articulate cruelty” of men like the badger-baiter, who “brought a sense of harmfulness” wherever he went. Men who nurture a hate for people and other animals they cast as weak, but who “smash… the lower jaw” of a badger “with a spade to give the dogs a chance”. Others who “keep [men like Grzegorz] constantly down… Keep you scared. So you just get on and follow the line. Just like those stupid obedient cows who wander along the line into the stun, as if it was the only way their life would ever have gone.”

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones

But also, always, I could speak of the instinct to protect and to relieve suffering. An instinct that is charged with a violence of its own. There are the boys who come upon a desperate, dying rabbit and determine to “finish it off”: “And the boy didn’t show anything but inside he asked the rabbit if it was alright to do this and the rabbit’s eye just half-closed in defeat, very slowly.”

And so, I could speak of love. Love of land, of life, human and animal. Love that, in Hold, is bound up with “a great sense of guilt at anything he took for himself. It was his will to provide without taking. It was, in a way, a form of self-harm.” Love that takes responsibility for the loved one. Shipwrecked, struck by lightning and adrift at sea, the protagonist of Cove is determined to make land for love of his wife and unborn child: “He felt a massive responsibility. He wanted to make sure she knew how to reset the pilot light on the boiler.” Never, in Jones’s work, is love uncomplicated. It requires control – of anger and of desire, both of which can be dangerous. And when the loved one is lost, when the role one has assumed comes under question, then love can lead to a desire to forfeit all purpose and responsibility. Daniel feels “a great want… to suffer some unpassable collision so that he could just lie down”. The protagonist of The Long Dry dreams guiltily of “[a] crisis, that would reiterate the importance of life and of reaping happily from it what you could”.

I could speak of these things – as I think of them while reading Cynan Jones – but I can’t help asking myself what the purpose of such talk would be. There is much to say – about portentous changes in weather and shifts in animal migrations, about place, about the vital forces of life, love, violence – and Jones has said it. His spare, lyrical prose (which has been compared by successive reviewers to that of Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, the young Ian McEwan and others) shuns any kind of elaboration.

And yet, I elaborate. As if, like one of Jones’s characters, I am following some “primal instinct” – an instinct to make land, to protect the sick, or to brutalise the weak. An instinct to fulfil a role and accept its purpose. I make the decision to speak.

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It has become my habit to read for the body of work, to regard each individual narrative as part of a larger whole and to engage in a concentrated – often chronological – reading of one author’s oeuvre. This approach seeks out the points of connection between each book and in these connections discovers a consolidation of allusion and theme, a slow accretion of meaning, tone, atmosphere. In Jones’s case this has led me to focus on love and violence, the hold of place and the desire to break free of it.

The Dig by Cynan Jones

But reading Jones in this way has also led me to question my approach, to become aware of the ways in which it is, perhaps, artificial. I find myself listening more closely to some works than to others, seeking out one allusion at the expense of another. The optimism of Cove, for instance, is lost to this analysis. A concentrated reading might give force to the body of work, but what does it do to an individual narrative? What is, to borrow Jones’s phrase, “the local effect” of such a comprehensive approach?

In each of Jones’s narratives, there is a brutality that finds its most extreme expression in The Dig, a book in which Jones takes his description of the cruelty of badger-baiting well beyond what is comfortable and on to the outer limit of what is bearable for the reader. Read on its own, The Dig is a meditation upon violence and loss. But read in concert, with Everything I Found on the Beach in particular, this violence and loss become part of a larger allegorical project that aligns the treatment of human beings and other animals to a deeply political end. The Dig opens with a graphic description of the dead body of a brutalised badger and a badger-baiter who refuses to touch it because that would give the creature a kind of “reverence”. Following a chronological rereading of Jones’s work, by the time I reached this point it was difficult to ignore the association of the badger with the cattle sent to slaughter in Everything I Found on the Beach, let alone the association of the cattle sent to slaughter with the men like Grzegorz and Hold, Daniel in The Dig, the husband and wife of The Long Dry, even the badger-baiter himself, who are, in their own ways, trapped and made brutal and trying to hold to their purpose in the face of the desperate temptation to give in, to lie down, to rest – which in Jones’s fiction is always associated with a kind of death.

It is the concentration of this brutality – brought to the limit of what is bearable – that is at the root of the question with which I began: when is it better to remain silent than to speak? To what end do we speak of men’s “articulate cruelty”? One answer is to be found in Jones’s body of work, in the associations that intersect therein. Speaking of one form of cruelty illuminates another. Like cattle sent to slaughter, human beings are corralled by agencies, banks, bureaucratic “grant people”. The choice – if there is one – is not between life and death, between the violent death of a baited badger and the natural death of a black lamb; as the protagonist of The Long Dry tells it: “He’d seen a lot of things die, and none of them beautifully.” But there might still be a choice between a life (and death) lived with or without purpose. Cynan Jones leaves many things unspoken, and in his narratives many secrets are kept. But his novels – read singly or in concert – are everywhere shaped by the “belief that a thing should not die nor be hurt without purpose”. On the page and elsewhere, we might find, still, “a respect for life and for the right of things to exist”.

 

Anna MacDonald

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna MacDonald is a writer and bookseller. She lives in Melbourne.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 15th, 2017.