Review: Gwlad yr Asyn by Wyn Mason and Efa Blosse Mason
Graphic novels in Welsh aren’t exactly two a penny – so Gwlad yr Asyn is an uncommon item. It’s even more so when you find out that it’s novel based on a play, placing its playful yet thoughtful account of the adventures of a donkey in a field of its own.
The original starting point for Wyn Mason’s story was another play, William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ although very few traces of that original drama of magic and colonization remain, other than the names of some of the characters. So we have Ari, Cal, Pross and Mira although they are nothing like their namesakes Ariel, Caliban, Prospero and Miranda.
For a start Ari is the donkey, and as befits such a central character he does all the heavy lifting. Indeed there’s a whole sequence in which he’s placed so centrally in the history of human civilization that it can appear as if he carried it all on his back, from water to guns, helping mankind to erect anything from the Great Wall of China through Roman roads to the great churches of the Middle Ages. It’s like history being rewritten to take into account, or more fully into account an often overlooked animal, a real beast of burden.
Ari, having been brought up in a human world has many identity issues, not to mention an uncertain sense of what constitutes freedom or what is necessary to feel independent. In light of such issues it’s tempting to read the novel as a parable about Wales, although one suspects that the author’s intentions are far more universal than that. He certainly touches on some pretty contemporary themes, not least rewilding with all of its contentions and complexities.
Pross is a donkey owner who’s gone over to the dark side, a man of casual cruelty who turns out to be much worse. In a sense he’s shorthand for all the heedlessness of humanity, someone driven on by greed. He wants to breed donkeys for the donkey milk which will in turn be used as a beauty product. To this end he pairs up Cal and Ari, hoping their eventual offspring will be the financial making of him. He in utterly unheeding of such matters as animal welfare and at one point sticks a fork into Cal’s hindquarters, showing he may own the animals but may not own much of a heart. Later in the tale we find he’s even more callous and cold-hearted, and if he’s a character who is shorthand for humanity then it all falls pretty short when it comes to moral decency.
The novel marks out two distinct worlds, that of human civilization with its roads, seaside rides and penchant for violence and then are the wildernesses, where herds of wild donkeys roam, in places such as desert Australia and in American States such as Arizona and Texas. But Ari wouldn’t really fit in in such testing terrains, as he had been brought up in a house, where he enjoyed the company of a fine old lady and enjoyed listening to Mozart until, that is his elderly companion passed away and he ended up being shipped off to Donkeyland. Fitting in, or not fitting in is one of the book’s abiding themes.
The art work sees Wyn’s daughter Efa Blosse Mason teaming up with her dad to great effect. In bold lines, dark blocks of colour and with with a very sure sense of pattern Efa keeps the style simple but affecting. Some sections of the book come complete with bright washes of colour, from satsuma orange through pillar box red to cadmium yellow. Keeping it simple obviously reaped rewards and it is little surprise to find out that some of the most positive reaction to the book came from 11 to 13 year olds. One can imagine the book working very well for Welsh language learners as well, while this is not to suggest that the book would not work for a general, adult audience. It does.
Much is signalled on the pages of Gwlad yr Asyn, thus leaving much to the reader’s imagination. “Europe” is summed up by a scattering of broken Corinthian columns while the history of warfare is there in a briskly drawn, stylized Kalashnikov rifle. It’s a jaunty read, with plenty of bold, crisp ideas along the way, with words and images complementing each other well, or going their separate ways when the story requires it, or allows it to happen. You will most certainly revise your opinion of donkeys and probably admit to a new found fondness for our four hoofed and sure footed friends.
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