Monday, February 12, 2007

Runt - Niall Griffiths

The hero of Niall Griffiths' Runt is a savant, an epileptic teenager whose name we never actually learn. Like Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin (another epileptic savant) the boy is a force for good. He absorbs rather than passes on pain. He is attuned to the natural world. And he is also a seer.

Sent away from town to escape domestic abuse he takes refuge at his uncle's hill farm. But his is no pastoral idyll. As many monsters are lurking in the countryside as in the town from which he has flown. Imagined monsters like the creature in Lake Bala. Bureaucratic monsters like the MAFF men who shot his aunt's sheep. And Arthur, a red-bearded ogre, for whom violence is a way of life and who wants to kill his dog.

The novel turns on an episode at the exact mid-point of the book when the narrator suffers a grand mal fit. During his seizure, which reads like a cross between the transformational myth of Taliesin and an LSD trip, he cryptically foresees - but doesn't understand - the dramatic events that await him. The novel ends with a fulfilment of this prophecy and a trademark Griffiths Grand Guignol episode of violence.

Having to convey the narrator's innocence the author employs an intentionally naive prose style. Long linked sentences where "and" is used instead of full stops is reminiscent of crudely written stories penned by children but actually has a sophisticated rhythm that is often beguiling. In fact one of the pleasures of Griffiths' work are the many rhapsodic passages which compel you to read them aloud so that the enjoyment becomes physical as well as intellectual.

Another feature of the text is that it is virtually free from worldly or contemporary cultural references. Even the computer in the narrator's bedroom is logged onto a webcam that is permanently pointed at Lake Bala.

Nature as always in Griffiths' writing is a powerful, omnipresent force. And whilst he never romanticises or Disneyfies it he always manages to convey a total sense of awe in it. From the stark grandeur of the mountains to the runt in a litter of kittens we are left marvelling at its brutal beauty.

Runt, published by Jonathan Cape, is on sale now. Griffiths will be reading from his new novel at Clwb Ifor Bach (Womanby Street, Cardiff) on Wednesday 28th February at 7pm. Entry is free.