To see long excerpts from “The Dig” at Google Books, click here.
A book by Cynan Jones
Set in rural Wales, Cynan Jones’ “The Dig” is the story of a collision between two men: an unnamed badger baiter known only as “the big man” and Daniel, a grief-shattered, widowed sheep farmer. It is both deeply moving and profoundly disturbing.
This is a spare, slim volume at a mere 154 pages, with brief chapters and truncated paragraphs, some no more than a sentence long. Yet its power is undeniable and its brevity is part of that power, as is the beauty of the language, in the same way a poem can sometimes have a stronger emotional punch than a novel.
In North America not many people know of badger baiting. It was, after all, outlawed in Britain in 1835, although that hasn’t stopped the illegal practice and sadly there has recently been a resurgence. What exactly is it? Badger baiting is a blood sport, similar to dog fighting. Dogs, usually terriers, are sent into setts (badger dens) where the badger is cornered, assuming the dog isn’t killed, and then dug out and caged. Later, this captured badger is tossed into a pit and set upon by dogs. Bets are placed. A baiting session typically results in the death of the badger, and often in serious injuries to the dogs. Badgers are frequently maimed, in ways I find too horrible to describe here, in order to give the dogs a better chance.
Jones uses the idea of the badger and the sett as an allegory, he says, “for the way we try to create a safe space for ourselves and the things we care for, and how some external force can break into and destroy that.”
The safe space Daniel has tried to create is the farm where he imagined he and his beloved wife would pass their days, and bring children as well as lambs into the world. But that dream ended when his wife died after being kicked in the head by a friend’s horse. The brutality of the badger baiting is juxtaposed against the lyric beauty of the story of lost love. Daniel hauls himself through the exhausting work of lambing, and the author’s crystal-sharp observations of country life are put to excellent use. Daniel recalls the “nest-like thing she could be to his tiredness.” Jones’ descriptions of the gentle relationship between Daniel and his wife are wonderful and we grieve with him when we read passages like this one:
“The scent of her was in the room and it almost choked him to understand how vital to him this was. … He made soft fists of his hands, stretching the weariness in them. I wonder if she feels from me the thing I feel about her when I touch her. Not in sex, which he understood now was a different thing from everything else. I just mean when I touch her skin before we sleep and I understand all the things beneath it. … He looked at where she slept. I can’t imagine living without that.”
On Daniel’s farm, however, there are recurring reminders of his wife’s death. In one passage Daniel battles to deliver a stillborn two-headed lamb, sawing off the second head to allow the body to exit the ewe. “He broke through the bone and the head lolled and he made taut the apron of meat and veins to go through them until the head came off.” He leaves for a moment and when he returns he sees “the ewe was licking the severed head and he felt sick well up in him. He tried to fight off the image of the destroyed head, of her destroyed head.”
The book has an unsentimental sense of place, even in nostalgic passages such as this one in which Jones describes the women of his mother’s type, who had a “staid, farmhouse traditionalism”:
“If you were hurt, their responses would be nurse-like and unsympathetic but their remedies would work, and if you were to make one of them angry it would be a great and dangerous thing. They are like this because they have been charged for generations with keeping their men working by feeding and repairing them, and there is no room for sentimentalism in that. You would not find kinder people, but their kindness would be in essential things and they would pour it on you.”
And then there’s “the big man,” who stalks the countryside with his dogs, hunting badgers to bait. The comparisons to Hemingway and, perhaps more appropriately, to Cormac McCarthy, are unavoidable: the über-masculinity; the relationship to the land and a dying way of life; the nearly pornographic violence; and an antagonist, similar to Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” who seems nearly cartoonish in his savagery. It’s this portrayal of “the big man” that is one of the few flaws of the novel. He is unnamed. He has almost no history. We never know what motivates him, or what has influenced him to become this sadist. He is more of a cipher than a real character, and with no way for the reader to identify with him or feel any sympathy for him, the plot becomes an exercise in waiting for the inevitable. His only area of vulnerability is that he doesn’t want to go back to prison, but that isn’t enough to develop any real concern for him.
Having said that, his presence is malevolent and pervasive as an encroaching plague, and the scenes of actual badger baiting some of the most visceral I’ve read. They couldn’t be more gruesome, and I choose not to quote them, but they are masterfully written.
Jones pays great attention to language, and here again are echoes of McCarthy in the prose style with its limited punctuation, King James biblical cadence, elliptical sentence structure and numerous repetitions. Occasionally his effort feels strained and too self-aware, as in an early paragraph composed entirely of “The night rippled with stillness” and this over-written passage:
“He looked up at the bare ash branches, mercurial and somehow elephantine, rising out through the low flood-lights and they hardly stirred, making the sound seem very far away. A distant white noise. A noise bearing some primitive hushed whisper of the permanence of vast things.”
As we near the end of the book the climax is no real surprise, no matter how we wish it might be different. And having arrived at the end, it’s hard to believe we began only 154 pages ago. Although not quite a perfect novel, its vision of death, grief and violence will certainly linger with me for a long time. I might even say it will haunt me. Jones is a fearless writer, and this is an accomplished work.