"One day, a strange account of a lame man's mysterious quest is found in the attic of an antiquarian bookshop. The Vogel Papers, as they become known, lead our loveable guide on an epic ramble around his homeland, abetted by a motely troupe of drinking-friends, academics, healers, writers and notorious eccentrics (not to mention a teddybear and a piglet or two), in search of a peculiar fellow called Mr Vogel." Publisher's blurb
This is the story of a small country and the tale of a lame man's quest for a lost bear. The novel generates its own mythology as it circles in fantastical and comic fashion around the simple story of one children's ward in Shropshire in the late 1950s. It weaves together stories of travellers and mystics, drunks and detectives. This is the story of 'crippled' children (in the language of the day) and pioneering healers: the bonesetters of Anglesey and the revolutionary nurse Agnes Hunt. Characters move in and out of wormholes in time, a man builds a stairway at the bottom of his garden before climbing it and disappearing. A vanload of escapees from an 'institution' and their accomplices take a plastic pig on a tour of Wales that mirrors the flight in The Mabinogion of Gwydion, Math and the pigs stolen from Pryderi, Prince of Dyfed. A recovering alcoholic, who is afraid of the 'yellow fan of light outside the off-licence', who fears that 'if he stepped inside that light ever again he would lured onto the rocks by the wrecker's treacherous lantern' p. 265, finds that he can make the three steps needed to walk through that fan, and he keeps on walking.
Mr Vogel is set in a pub and an 'institution' (mental health ) in Llanfairfechan and a children's orthopaedic ward at the Agnes Hunt and Robert Jones Memorial Hospital in Gobowen. But it also includes some epic journeys and quests which take the characters on a circumnavigation of Anglesey and then a walk around the whole circumference of Wales. The different locations, from Churches to railway stations, industrial plants to Offa's Dyke, become historical palimpsests through which the author stitches together both the disguised story of childhood trauma and disability and a comic celebration of the culture of a small country.
There is a dazzling cast of characters, some of whom seem to be the 'same' person in different guises. At the centre is Mr Vogel, a lame man and an oddity, a man with a mysterious quest and a past which is the subject of a detective story conducted by the narrator of the central section of the novel.
The three character-narrators of the novel overlap with each other and appear to share some details of Vogel's life. There is the nameless bartender who writes the first fantastical 'Vogel Papers' and who is questioned as a 'fantasist fuelled by alcohol which had rotted his brain'. The second is the nameless narrator who is walking round Wales and investigating the mysterious Vogel papers. Though Lloyd Jones walked round Wales as a way of combating his alcoholism, the nameless narrator has 'never drunk in my life' p. 144.
The third narrator is named Gwydion and he gets a job in the bookshop that has taken the place of the old pub. Gwydion is of course the name of one of the greatest storytellers in Welsh mythology, and so is the archetypal weaver of tales. He ultimately fulfils the role of conspirator, detective and amanuensis to Vogel, bringing the tale in a full circle, or perhaps just repeating the patterns laid out in the earlier stages of the novel, writing and walking in the grooves of a myth that is larger than any individual actor. In a sense, all the narrators are fragments of Vogel and when the considerable autobiographical underpinning of the novel is recalled, Lloyd Jones himself moves in and out of this story told 'slant'.
Mr Vogel is a comic novel, drawing on the picaresque tradition. The humour comes in part from the self-deprecating puncturing of high-flown sentiment, but also in the form of a comic duo of sweary and hard-drinking side-kicks. In the longer, second section, they are the irreverent builder and part-time sleuth Waldo and the inebriated but perceptive Paddy. Their names in the first section, the Vogel papers are 'called Don Quixote and Sancho Panza': "One of them was a Sumo-bellied builder and the other was his trusty sidekick, a thin and angular man who was a very poor carpenter but a brilliant mythomaniac, who spent most of his time drinking shorts and telling very tall stories." p. 14
Mr Vogel is a circuitous tale a strange kind of detective story. It begins with a pub and a lame man and a quest. Be warned – there are spoilers in this introduction.
The first part of the novel – a tale of of Mr Vogel's eccentricities and his odd quest around a neighbouring island (Anglesey) – is narrated by the bartender.
In this story, Time has collapsed and figures like the eighteenth-century writer Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) pass through. The poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) and travel writer George Borrow (1803-1881) come to a party, possibly with a drover. The novel is full of cameo appearances by historical travellers and chroniclers of Wales. The first fantastical section ends abruptly in the middle of a comic scene involving a very drunk builder (nicknamed Sancho Panza, sidekick to Don Quixote, also a builder) is interrupted in a speech by the arrival of a mysterious woman in a wheelchair, with a gift for Mr Vogel... This isn't the last we see of them.
The second section of the novel is told by a different narrator and is a much less fantastical account of one man's walk around Wales in an attempt to recover from severe alcoholism. He is marking out his cynefin and as he walks he encounters Wales as a kind of palimpsest, a land that bears the traces of other travellers and its long cultural and political history in the landscape and buildings of the coast and borders. The journey is interspersed with the detective story – the efforts of the narrator and a motley crew of supporting characters to find out what on earth the Vogel Papers are about. These clues and riddles slowly lead him, by way of Tasmania and America, to 'the epicentre of our story': an orthopaedic children's ward in Gobowen, on the border of Wales and England.
The third section is set in a mental hospital, where Mr Vogel dictates his memoires to the narrator of the second section whose identity by this time has seeped into that of the first bartender narrator. In some senses all the characters are caught in a mythical cycle in which they take a limited number of parts. The section includes a triumphant breakout during which the gang steal a plastic pig and, along with a live piglet, visiting the many places in Wales with Moch (pig) in the name – Llanraeadr-ym-Mochnant, Mochdre, Nant-y-Moch – in a farcical version of Gwydion's flight with Pryderi's pigs (a story in the Mabinogion). And of course the writing of the Vogel Papers themselves.
Cakes and Spirals
It might help to see the structure of novel as a big circle with a multi-layered cake in the centre. The circle is the walk down Offa's dyke and round the coast of Wales. The cake – which has three layers – represents the retelling of the Vogel story in three different forms. Another way of thinking about the book would be to see the story as a spiral. We start at the outer point and gradually work our way to the centre passing the same points, seeing the same characters in slightly different guises, time and again as we slowly get closer to the 'truth' of the story. And what is at the centre? A children ward, and a lost bear, where a six-year-old boy – Vogel – has been strapped to a bed for a year in order to cure Perthes disease (a disease of the hip joint), as was Lloyd Jones, the author.
The novel creates its own mythology, where Vogel and fellow patients, the lost bear, and the narrator and his helpers, appear and reappear in different guises across a time-scape that ignores linear time. Place is much more consistent a reference point, with stories anchored to particular locations – the pub (which is later a bookshop), the hospital (which is still there) and 'the institution' (a mental health facility) – and of course to the many places the narrator visits on his journey round the edges of Wales.
Time and Place
Places, in this non-sequential narrative, exist across time:
Already I have discovered that the author of the Vogel Papers, in trying to evoke a bustling, multifarious society, didn’t have to exaggerate at all, merely fiddle about with time. And during my walk around Wales I found that time came and went with every roll of the landscape and every shift of the wind. Sometime later, on Offa’s Dyke, I almost felt the physical presence of Offa’s Mercians as they toiled to build the four yards or so of embankment allotted to each man before he could return to his own manor in the not-yet-English part of the British midlands. How they must have hated the Welsh, looking from their secret places in their savage land. p. 84