Triptych [Triptych]

Jones, R.Gerallt

Blow-by-blow terminal cancer narratives are strangely compelling. The subtitle of this novel, ‘A portrait, in three parts, of Everyman, 1977’, reminds us that death comes to all, and reinforces the uneasy conviction that we ghoulishly enjoy reading of someone else’s inevitable journey to the grave. In this instance, the descent seems more dramatic because forty-year-old John Bowen has devoted his life to physical activity. A former international rugby player turned college lecturer in physical education, with a nice little sideline as a radio and

television commentator, this classic macho Welshman is peculiarly unprepared for the bad news ineptly delivered by an embarrassed doctor. His first reaction is anger at his fate, and it is anger which seems to sustain him throughout his remaining months of life. His feelings are charted in this tripartite narrative, supposedly his diary, where we follow the progress of his determined but useless battle, from initial shock, to an attempt to live with the situation, to final decline and death in hospital.

The physical details of symptoms and treatment are very few, though enough to raise a shudder at the inadequacies of pain control for the terminally ill in the 1970s. But this gives Bowen’s experience a more universal relevance, for the central theme is a man’s hopeless struggle against death itself rather than a specific case of cancer. For those of us allergic to all forms of sport, this is a saving grace: the rugby is there only to underline the contrast between the before and after of Bowen’s life. The narrative of his struggle with his condition is interwoven with reminiscences, where I catch a subtext of sly social criticism. He has followed the classic path of many Welshmen of his generation — a rural background left behind in favour of college, then marriage to an equally upwardly-mobile miner’s daughter from the south, and the gradual shift into membership of the then newish Welsh-speaking Cardiff bourgeoisie of teachers and media people. When he naïvely returns to lick his wounds in the countryside he realises too late a further loss: that in their flight to the city he and his contemporaries have helped to destroy the very communities which they had once been glad to leave. Everything of his old life slips from his grasp and he even becomes more and more detached from his wife and family. His horizons dwindle until his world is reduced to his hospital bed. Death, Geralt Jones reminds us in this absorbing narrative of inevitability, makes self-pitying, if sometimes heroic, egotists of us all, whilst revealing, too late, the banal pointlessness of much our lives.

But the most chilling aspect of this narrative for me is the distance between Bowen and his wife, Sal, and not only because dying is essentially a solitary experience. Flaws in his relationship with Sal are evident from the moment he receives the death sentence from his doctor and decides not to tell her, whilst she herself — seen from his perspective at least — seems extraordinarily blind to his changed behaviour. Rather than bringing a new closeness, pain and death make his relationship with her and the children increasingly irrelevant to him, so the chance for any true understanding is lost for ever. CL-M


Oh, I know. I shouldn’t be cynical about people’s motives. But I’m going to point out, nevertheless, that some of Sal’s friends, some of those sharp, pointed women who ran the discussion groups and social service clubs, paid more attention to my existence in one week than they had previously done in eighteen

years. And you can see it ticking away behind their eyes. ‘John Bowen is dying of cancer’. Curiosity. Pity. It was an interesting, awe-inspiring, fearful fact breaking into the monotony of life. Well, death certainly did that. I don’t know what they said to Sal, but a kind of funeral parlour hush descended on the house every time one of them called. The rest of the time, there was even more noise than usual. I think the kids were going out of their way to show that everything was normal, that the shadow of sickness wasn’t going to get us down. It was one way of saying that we were — us, the family — impregnable. The place sometimes seemed to be bubbling over with laughter and practical jokes. It was a pretty exhausting business, I must admit, but it was a week during which I felt full of a mad happiness, hedged around by their concerted challenge to fate, during those periods when we were left to ourselves.