Book review: Deep Wheel Orcadia, by Harry Joséphine Giles


Harry Joséphine Giles PIC: Rich Dyson

It is daring and experimental work. The point of the experiments is that sometimes – as with the famous Michelson-Morley experiment to prove the existence of the “luminiferous aether” – they fail; but you learn something from failure. There is a lot to admire in Giles’ work, and there is a lot that perhaps needs a closer look.

What kind is this work? The cover says “A Novel”, the back says it is part of Picador Poetry and the spine of the book says it is a “novel in verse”. It has always been an ambiguous and unclassifiable type of book. There is a difference between narrative poetry, like Tennyson’s “Idylls Of The King” and Browning’s more elaborate “The Ring And The Book” or Arthur Clough’s “Travel Loves”. Lately, there has been a slight resurgence of this long hybrid form: for example, Fredy Neptune from Les Murray, The Long Take by Robin Robertson, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, and the ingenious novel-in-sonnets from Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate. But there is a persistent problem. Does a line exist for itself, or is it a mechanism to propel the narrative? If you want to tell a story, do you sacrifice the complexity of the line?

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Deep Wheel Orcadia doesn’t quite square this particular circle. It is written in what the cover calls “Orkney dialect” and the author calls “Orkney language”. Each of the poems has an English rendering underneath, and these are done with a certain aplomb. The idea of ​​’translating’ Scottish into English, I think, begins with Robert Crawford’s joint collection with WN Herbert, Sharawaggi. It is a useful tool for clarifying the distinctiveness of words. In Giles’ work, for example, the word “birl” or “birlan” is translated as “whirlrushdancespinning”. Likewise, “unca” is put as “strange” and “canny” is “skilledwisemagicalcautious”. I think most people with a passable understanding of Scots in any form would be able to negotiate these words quickly. Indeed, with even more daring works, like Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – not to mention Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – the reader is kind of lulled into the landscape of words. There is a political argument in that ‘English’ is below ‘Orcadian’, but that’s not really that important when I think of my Greek and Latin Loeb classics – English back, original front .

Orcadia Deep Wheel, by Harry Joséphine Giles

Linguistic dexterity is quite entertaining. Hugh MacDiarmid boasted and was vilified for his “synthetic scots” and that applies here. Although the book contains its own justification – “sheu hears thir vooels roondan, thir consonants clippan / thir wirds switchan” – and often English interferes when the vocabulary is just not there – “Ma coseen est wi a college / roon Alpha Centauri, wirkan / wi archives o 21st century / intertextual narrative “- the problematic part is the difference between phonology and spelling. Why do these Orcadians from space say (or write)” arkaeolojist “And” ruin “rather than” archaeologist “or” ruin “,” taks “for” takes “or” injines “for” engines “? I can understand the use of dwam, smirr, watergaw, on-ding, hae for gie to give, but I’ve never seen anyone insist on “crampit, calald office” rather than “retroit, cold office.” This may make the rhythm of the tongue more apparent, but it may seem like a difference to the language. difference.

And it’s a novel. I have a deep love for science fiction and I know my roots in it. It’s not bad, but the tropes are all pretty worn out – there are massive wrecks of unknown origin, the harvest of “Light”, spectral presences, the loneliness of space, a certain fluidity of genres. None of this is new. Iain M Banks ticked all of these boxes some time ago. Caulking the narrative with an Orkney and tech sense, which is undoubtedly a valid concern, doesn’t add much depth to the story. There is a game I play with my nephews: describe Han Solo. They can. Describe Qui-Gon Jinn. Blank faces. The characters in Deep Wheel Orcadia lack substance, and even worse, the reader probably wouldn’t be able to realize what is happening to them. They are puppets for pyrotechnics, and last just as long. Compared to works like Eschbach’s The Hair-Carpet Weavers or Alice B Sheldon’s Ten Thousand Years Light From Home or the stories of Arkday and Boris Strugatsky, it seems intellectually and emotionally thin.

At the same time, I received two small books from the aforementioned Robert Crawford, Classical Texts and Brexit Tears, with illustrations by Calum Colvin. They are brilliantly refined works, reminiscent in some ways of Ian Hamilton Finlay. They are pithy and sarcastic, enigmatic and intense. You wouldn’t think you could read a single word – like Penelope – laid out on the page in such a way that you would reread it. Then read it again.

Giles is undoubtedly a talented writer, but this first major work lacks direction – it, like the space station, revolves in a static place. Scotland and innovative science fiction have a long history, from Lindsay’s A Voyage To Arcturus to Morgan’s From Glasgow To Saturn. It is admirable to try to follow in their footsteps, more courageous to go it alone.

Orcadia Deep Wheel, by Harry Josephine Giles, Picador, £ 10.99

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