Cynefin: meaning through literature

May 11, 2007

I have just finished reading this wonderful first novel by Peter Ho Davies which is centred around the meaning of the word cynefin. The story is set towards the end of WWII and tells a fluid interweaving story around the interactions and ambiguities of three characters: the welsh girl of the title, a German POW and a British Officer who is the son of a Jewish German WWI hero.
The book is a delight, multi-layered and subtle in the way that its messages unfold. There is a fascinating reference to the Black & Tans and the question of identities in tension is constant. There are a couple of reviews here and I quote from the second (which is the better:

Dealing with issues of honor, identity, patriotism, and displacement, this centers on cynefin, a Welsh word describing a sense of place or territory for which there is no English equivalent.

Interestingly I came across the book some time ago when my Technorati search on Cynefin found this in the Francisco Chronicle. Again I quote, the reviewer is speaking of Davies’s intent:

cynefin is a trope that anchors his exploration of nationalism and language

This review by Kathryn Crim is slightly more critical, but shows a better understanding of the symbolism in the book itself. Ironically it took some time after its US publication for the book to be available in Wales. Aside from being a good and intelligent read, the book provides a deeper exploration of a word, Cynefin, with meaning beyond its literal translation.

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