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Book Review: Dylan Thomas's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog

Juan Marinello once wrote, “somos a través de un idioma que es nuestro siendo extranjero.” He’s saying that Cubans express who they are in Spanish, a language which is at once their own and foreign. After finishing my latest rereading of Thomas’s collection of stories I couldn’t help but think of this quote, which I remember from graduate school. That’s because, while Thomas writes English, it is not my English. Or better yet, it both is and isn’t my English, for while I sometimes am at loss as to what he is referring to with his words, in general I can follow along just fine.

It is the exuberance of the language that gives the book its charm. Thomas is not stingy with his adjectives; he unpacks them all. And while written in prose, the book is laced with the internal rhythms and alliterations of poetry:

“Birds in the Crescent trees were singing; boys on bicycles were ringing their bells and pedaling down the slight slope to make the whirrers in their wheels startle the women gabbing on the sunny doorsteps; small girls on the pavement, wheeling young brothers and sisters in prams, were dressed in their summer best, and with coloured ribbons; on the circular swing in the public playground, children from the snot school spun themselves happy and sick, crying ‘Swing us!’ and ‘Swing us!’ and ‘Ooh! I’m falling!’; the morning was as varied and bright as though it were an international or a jubilee when Raymond Price and I, flannelled and hatless, with sticks and haversacks, set out together to walk to the Worm’s Head.”

Wow. There is a sentence. Shall we count the semi-colons? Let’s not.

But it’s not just the language that brings me back to this book every few years. The stories and the characters are good and memorable. A grandfather who marches off to the next town over to be buried, schoolmates who fight and brag and boast and play pranks on each other, two friends who set off to walk to the seashore, a group of amateurs who play at literature on Saturday nights behind closed doors.

The book seems to me to be mostly autographical, for the young Thomas is always at the center of things. With each chapter he gets a little older: at the beginning he’s a mere boy and by the end he’s a young man.

I’ve read it maybe three times over the last twenty years. I think of it as a winter book for some reason, a cozy book maybe. At 120 pages it’s not long, and each rereading is rewarding.

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August 2017

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