REVIEW by Suzy Ceulan Hughes

NWR Issue r26

Staring Back at Me

by Tony Bianchi

Tony Bianchi, who died too young in the summer of 2017, was an extraordinary man in many ways. Not least of these was that, having learned Welsh only when he moved to Lampeter to study English and Philosophy at St David’s University College, he went on to make a significant contribution to contemporary Welsh literature – in Welsh. His second novel, Pryfeta won the Daniel Owen Memorial Prize at the National Eisteddfod in 2009, and Dwy Farwolaeth Endaf Rowlands won the Prose Medal in 2015.

Staring Back at Me is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, many of which first appeared in Welsh in Cyffesion Geordie oddi Cartref (Gomer, 2010). The English translations are by Bianchi himself, who also translated several of his own novels, including Esgyrn Bach (The Bone Pickers, unpublished), Pryfeta (Daniel’s Beetles), and Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn (Harri Selwyn’s Last Race). Bumping (Alcemi) was his only novel published in English alone.

So here was a man, born and brought up in North Shields, who thoroughly embraced the language of his adopted homeland in Wales. In ‘Speaking in Tongues’, he tells the story of his efforts to learn Welsh during his first year in Lampeter, and the ruse he adopted to prevent Welsh speakers from slipping into English as soon as they heard his first stumbling sentence. ‘My strategy was a radical and, I think, original one,’ he writes. ‘I decided to become Italian.’ His surname bore him in good stead, and to back it up he bought himself some Italian-looking clothes and learned a few basic Italian sentences, which he could supplement with the Latin he had learned as a Church-going Catholic, guessing that nobody would be able to tell the difference. It all goes swimmingly until the woman in the local shop asks him to teach her Italian. Bianchi’s humour is wry and self-deprecating, belying the apparent brashness of his behaviour. He is a man full of contradictions.

But I have jumped ahead. The collection begins with ‘Dance Ti Tha Daddy’, set in the author’s hometown when he was eight years old, at a time when children were allowed to go off and play on the local bit of waste ground, collecting caterpillars in an old jam-jar; when sweets came in white paper bags, weighed out from a jar, and when crabs were only 9d each, and a lemon sole just sixpence. Fish usually came surreptitiously free but, in an incident recounted here, one day Bianchi’s father has to pay proper money. ‘Don’t you go telling your Mam. You hear?... Not a word, remember. Not a word.’ It’s clear from the outset that Bianchi’s policeman father rules the roost, and not always kindly. Later, in ‘Eric ‘n’ Ernie’ (originally published in English in New Welsh Review), he is suddenly taken ill while he and fifteen-year-old Bianchi are watching Morecambe and Wise. The man is clearly in serious pain, but the boy daren’t do anything without his father’s word. So he just sits there. It’s an astonishing scene, one that is echoed elsewhere, as in ‘Watching’, a story from much later in Bianchi’s life, when he sees a man accidentally pull the car boot-lid down on his wife’s head. He is aware, he is concerned, yet he is frozen in inaction. It is a strange psychological splitting that he comes back to again and again – knowing what he could or should do in a particular situation, and yet doing nothing, as though empathy is there but persistently denied. Nowhere is this clearer than in ‘Learning Scriabin’, in which the only thing he feels able to do for an old friend (though he denies it was ever a friendship) who is crippled with carpal tunnel syndrome is to play the piano with him. He knows there is so much else he could do to help, and yet…. It’s all a little discombobulating. Bianchi’s stories are full of warmth, tenderness and humour, and yet you get the sense of a man who is cut off from his feelings, or who chooses to disown them, often describing himself as ‘pretending’, as just going through the motions.

Perhaps the early stories are the key. They’re imbued with a strong sense of family and community, centring around church and school. Bianchi’s grandfather is portrayed with affection in ‘Our Grandpa, Who Art in Heaven’, and ‘Hunting the Octopus’ and ‘Counting to Ten’ offer warm, vivid pictures of the teachers and boys at Bianchi’s Catholic school. Yet it was also a time when you kept your head down to avoid the cane, when children were to be seen and not heard, when you never ever questioned your elders and betters – especially not your father, or even the priest whose room is full of empty vodka bottles. ‘And there is so much that I must remember not to remember.’ It was a strange world to grow up in, and Bianchi conveys it, and its lifelong impact, in all their (in)glorious confusion.

Suzy Ceulan Hughes is a writer and translator. Her most recent short story is included in Wandrian (Aberystwyth University MA Anthology 2018), sold in aid of MIND Aberystwyth.

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previous review: Arrest Me, for I Have Run Away
next review: Double Review: Brief Lives: Six Fictions and Christopher Meredith (Writers of Wales)


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