Review: Pugnacious Little Trolls by Rob Mimpriss
This collection of freely and fiercely inventive short stories takes its title from the critic A. A. Gill’s depiction of the Welsh people as ‘immoral, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious…’ and is just as provocative, albeit in very different ways.
Some of the tales herein are highly experimental, such as the opening ‘The Conquest of Angles A and B by the Superior People of Angle C’ which might have the reader hunting for a parable or enjoying the unexpected challenges of encountering trigonometry within the parameters of prose.
This is a story supercharged with ideas, recalling the ways in which the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges similarly plays fast and loose with concepts of time and space and indeed with the laws of physics as they pertain to known matter and the extent of the universe.
Some of the other stories are more conventional, not least the excellent, very contemporary triad of stories which revolve around a character called Tanwen. ‘Works and Days,’ ‘Cleanliness’ and the eponymous ‘Pugnacious Little Trolls’ are superb, brisk evocations of both time and place, set in a Wales where there are sufficient second homes to warrant setting up committees for their owners, where landscapes are subject to landslips and language is a very hot potato.
Tanwen herself is in some ways reminiscent of Amy Parry, the pivot of Emyr Humphreys’ magisterial Land of the Living Series in that charting her life gives us insights into those around her and about the society she inhabits.
Thus we meet her free-spirited, independent minded half-sister Bethan who lives in a vardo parked in the shadow of an oak tree. Her life is conjured up in the little details of the place – the beanbags, the guitar, the hash pipe and bookshelves with books by Gramsci and Raymond Williams she had borrowed from her dad.
The time the two women spend together is punctuated by talk about Bethan’s dad, or the way the tylwyth teg, the fairies led to a nearby farm being abandoned or the beauty of quilts.
Elsewhere we meet the mildly eccentric academic Huw Emyr who since he’s retired and moved to a place called Traethelern has ‘made a study of frivolity, the way I once made a study of Middle Welsh verbs. Living alone, I instituted a strict policy against talking to myself about politics or work…’
The three stories end if not in a blaze of glory, then certainly with a blaze, one befitting the Mabinogion-style self-combustions of trees both green with leaf and with fire as Tanwen lives up to the white fire of her name. But the flames themselves are not white, but are, rather green with leaf and red with berries:
‘Like the summer fires that were creeping beyond the south of Europe, like the ignorance and greed that threatened her own fragile nation, they were growing stronger, and she stood with her hands ate her sides and her toes scratching the lichen that dusted the rock, and the branches took light, and the tree assumed its final beauty and gave itself to blaze.’
The final three stories in the collection are re-versionings or re-presentations of tales from the radical poet and stonemason Iolo Morganwg’s marvellous Manuscripts, so that we have, for instance ‘Envy Burning Itself’ recast as a story called ‘To the Lime Kilns.’
These serve not only to entertain the reader but also direct one in the direction of the bountifully odd and arresting originals, now digitised online and well worth scouting out.
I read these just after taking some Romanian visitors to see places in Cardiff connected with Iolo’s history and Mimpriss’s stories not only reminded me of the opium-addicted inventor of the Eisteddfod’s brilliance but also of the zestful playfulness the two of them share, along with a grand energy and capacity for invention.
So, one imagines how much Iolo would have loved the account of a Central American reserve for harpies – not to be confused with harpy eagles, which are also found in the same green jungles – just as he would the visit to the country of the Cynocephali, a Central Asian location where they eat marmots, quaff Uzbek wine and drink salted tea from lacquered drinking bowls in the story called ‘Traveller M. in the Land of the Cynocephali,’ where M is more likely to be Mimpriss than the Head of the Secret Intelligence Service in the Bond films.
You’ll have got the sense by now that this is a baroque collection of intellectual exotica with a very wide range of settings and concerns. Some of them aren’t easy reads necessarily. Dr Johnson said what is written without effort is read without pleasure.
Pugnacious Little Trolls suggests this also works the other way round even as Mimpriss proves he has ideas in spades along with plenty of things to say both about this world and plausible others.
Pugnacious Little Trolls is published by the Bangor-based Cockatrice Press in its Wales in Europe series which aims to celebrates ‘the past and future of Wales as an independent nation.’ You can buy a copy on Amazon here.
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Oh yes! I remember when that food fop AA Gill coined the phrase. So sad when his feeble constitution failed him. Not for me obviously. I didn’t care either way. But for whiny EngNats everywhere