Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Vagabond's Breakfast

Richard Gwyn's memoir, The Vagabond's Breakfast, is a compelling account of the author's lost years of vagrancy in Greece, France and Spain, as well as his ongoing battles with alcoholism, insomnia and viral hepatitis. Given a year to live by medics and writing through the fog of hepatic encephalopathy Gwyn picks through his past life with commendable objectivity.

Sun-kissed anecdotes of Keroucian wanderlust and Bukowskian drunkenness provide the reader with vicarious thrills yet Gwyn himself is keen to de-romanticise his former lifestyle. He bemoans, for example, the immense tedium of being down and out: "the hours spent outside cafes nursing a single drink, of rendezvous with potential employers who never turned up, of having to listen to the interminably tedious advice of a certain breed of seasoned world-traveller, of the inane chatter of junkies and petty criminals..."

We learn that Gwyn eked out a living doing seasonal agricultural work, picking tomatoes, melons and oranges. Drunken escapades - often barely remembered - result in frequent hospitalisations or lead to temporary incarceration in a range of continental slammers. Sporadic relationships offer potential avenues of escape from his lowlife existence but as he says himself: "the level of my social dereliction took me to zones where the few available women were either incontinent or permanently brain-damaged."

Underpinning Gwyn’s aimless but colourful meanderings is a strong philosophical dimension. He ruminates on the haphazard, unplanned nature of existence. How those seemingly small choices we make can have a profound influence on the direction that our lives ultimately take – those ‘sliding door’ moments. The memoirist also questions the reliability and veracity of memory. And, as a fictioneer, he is aware of the artifice of shaping those memories into some coherent form. The dynamic between reality and imagination is important to Gwyn both ontologically and as a writer.

Given such musings it's no surprise that The Vagabond’s Breakfast doesn’t follow a linear narrative. Instead this is a weave of anecdotes and memories inspired to some degree by the process of writing itself. Certain of his recollections have the self-contained quality of short stories. A Grangetown youth who rescues the author from a difficult situation at an all night garage, for example, turns out to be a Somali refugee whom he once taught to speak English. Other tales serve to lighten the narrative, notably his stint as a "milkman of ill repute".

Although primarily a memoir The Vagabond's Breakfast reads like a travelogue. By that I don't mean that it's merely a lowlife trek through the sunlit landscapes of southern Europe, but rather a negotiation of the darker and more difficult terrain of illness. It's an inner journey that ends in redemption and hard won self-knowledge, so one that was worth embarking upon - for the reader, certainly.

*The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn is published by Alcemi.