Mr Cassini, by Lloyd Jones

A surreal sprawl of secrets from the master of modern Welsh literature

Amanda Hopkinson
Thursday 04 January 2007 01:00

Lloyd Jones is to contemporary writing in Wales as Charles Bukowski was to the US. Erratic, rampaging, and infused with drug- and drink-fuelled visions, Mr Cassini (like its predecessor, Mr Vogel) is a sprawl of a book whose structure is at times infuriatingly absent, at others just as infuriatingly powerful. Rarely addressing the reader's perplexed questions, it chases a quintessentially Welsh quest in a variety of linguistic tenses. All is conditional on the arbitrary impulses of the human condition.

Duxie, a played-out footballer with a penchant for snooker, is in love with Olly. He is as bent on playing Hero to Leander, Tristan to Iseult, as he is on turning tragedy to comedy and back on itself again. Not that Duxie feels anything much: a man of frozen emotions and a wearer of gloves to conceal the hunk of mottled meat that is his burnt and useless left hand, he seeks out the mythic and mystical qualities of the left-handed Olly, sinister and obsessive, but as lovely as Leda - and every other maiden of snowy, feathery legend.

More than anything, however, Duxie is in love with the Welsh landscape and obsessed with Mr Cassini. This is not the landscape of guidebooks but of islands and lakes, snows and rainbows. Mr Cassini is the once-Italian funeral director, a paternal alter ego who manifests now as a giant rabbit, and now as an insistently buzzing fly in Stefano's café.

Jones is at his best with the outsized rabbits and metamorphosed flies. The central cast of characters remains as undeveloped as the tapestry backdrop of passing saints and sailors, seers and policemen, and there are times when the reader yearns for a little believability in both Duxie and Olly.

Jones is as catholic a reader as he is a writer. From astronomy to alchemy, water divining to bird watching, WG Sebald to Adam Phillips, quotations are rampant. Many are by way of diversion, for this is a book about secrets and the extravagant lengths we go to in order to prevent them from seeping out. And about what happens when they do, in a climax that gives poetic form to a personal apocalypse.

Despite the frustrations of two central personages who strain credibility, Mr Cassini is a book that demands to be read and re-read. Hidden apocrypha, kaleidoscopic rainbows and cabbalistic numerals notwithstanding, Lloyd Jones's use of language and emotion is second to none in contemporary Welsh literature.

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