Angus Peter Campbell

  • The List
  • 31 August 2006

Gael force

As Angus Peter Campbell helps launch a new publishing venture, Rodge Glass finds an author asking crucial questions about language and culture.

Angus Peter Campbell may be used to a small, Gaelic-speaking audience, so moving on to write his first book in English is an ambitious yet perhaps obvious move. But with two critically acclaimed novels behind him already (one of which, The Night Before We Sailed, was the only Gaelic work to make it into the top ten of this magazine’s 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time), he’s already had proven success. But this language move is not a permanent one and in any case, Campbell feels a responsibility to Gaelic literature: ‘There are so few Gaelic works and I didn’t want to translate my existing work into English; I wanted to protect it.’

He is currently working on another major Gaelic novel, so why does this new book in English appear at all? ‘I wrote this for those not familiar with Gaelic, because enough people asked me to write one.’ And here it is. Invisible Islands is a slim collection that showcases Campbell’s usual lyrical style, this time published by a new, small independent Glasgow publisher. Otago say they plan to keep to very few books a year, concentrating all their efforts on those they passionately believe in. Otago’s owner John Storey worked with Campbell on previous books and quickly snapped him up for their launch. It will be interesting to see what follows.

The book is particularly inspired by the work of Italo Calvino, looking at 21 imaginary islands (given Gaelic names but very international otherwise), exploring the geography, history and language of each along the way. Few have a traditional story, and it can be difficult to see where some are going.

Campbell’s style is gently meandering, and occasionally the tales seem like a history lesson, delivering lots of information about the origin of words or traditions. But there are strong themes that link each piece. In ‘Buerla’ (meaning ‘English’) a visitor persuades the inhabitants of the island to abandon their culture, the story finishing with a bold statement showing that the author believes it’s up to communities to take responsibility for their choices: ‘Always the stranger, always the other from someplace else, always some tall thin man who came and took the cards from our hands and froze the words on our lips and took the goodness out of our music and swept the fire from the centre of the floor and set a searing bonfire in our hearts.’

Questions of language and culture are central throughout. In ‘Cumanta’, (the ordinary island), words themselves are questioned as carriers of meaning. ‘Every adverb drags a library behind it,’ it reads, ‘every noun a civilisation, every adjective a universe.’ The author himself explains his stance. ‘My fascination with language has nothing to with linguistics, but everything to do with humanity. I think expressing ourselves ?" whether through conversation, literature, art, music or whatever ?" is a fundamental human gifting and that we suffer terribly when that gifting is withdrawn, like a punishment. I am interested in the ways in which we as human beings choose to express ourselves, or have our lives expressed for us, and it often seems to me that a literary or linguistic liberation is actually both the prerequisite and the consequence of a fuller human life.’

Invisible Islands is out now published by Otago.

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