Monday, 18 April 2016
The Dark Philosophers
Author: Gwyn Thomas
Year of publication: 1946, Library of Wales edition 2005
Back cover blurb: 'Sex, murder and devastating black humour mark these three novellas from the 1940s. In Oscar, the narrator of death and exploitation fails to fend off the evil that envelopes him. In Simeon, the abuse of sexual and family power ends with violent death, and in The Dark Philosophers itself, the grimly humorous philosophers gather in an Italian café in the Terraces to tell the dark tale of revenge that they engineer.'
Reading reveals: Welsh author Gwyn Thomas was once well known, speaking on BBC radio with some regularity. A high media profile did not guarantee posterity, however (take note, Will Self), and not even a TV drama of his life starring Anthony Hopkins could save him from a slide into near-obscurity.
I've always imagined the Welsh valleys to generally be places of God-bothering tedium, so the version presented here is quite a surprise. For a start, everyone is quite horny. Also, everyone is forced into hard compromises just to stop themselves from sinking under at a time of high unemployment and poverty. Often, these two things intersect.
The first story, Oscar, is about a man who owns a mountain and the man who looks after the man who owns the mountain. It's a disturbing tale of precisely what money will buy you when you've got some and no one else around has. It's a gruesome portrayal of a man's bestial state, and worth checking out.
The Dark Philosophers itself, despite being the work that defined Thomas, is possibly the one here that has aged the least well. The philosophers themselves, three only-occasionally employed clientele of an Italian coffee shop, have a wit so cynical it wears you down after a while, and their half-love of their own poverty is one step away from Python's Four Yorkshiremen. Some scenes seem to exist only to present them with easy targets, and their willingness to step over anybody in order to make a political point betrays them as being as monstrous in their own way as the capitalism they rail against.
Up a hill again for the final story, Simeon, where a farmer turns to incest with his daughters in their remote cottage. It's quite creepy, like a children's story that goes very wrong, and also well worth your while.
Random paragraph: '"In any case," I muttered, "I don't give a damn. Mountains, tips, Oscar, Danny, Hannah, work and pain, living and dying, it all looks terribly odd to me."'