Sunday, 1 January 2012

Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker

Map from Riddley Walker I have always liked the kind of books that have maps at the front. They seem to promise, not just a story, but a whole world. In fact, the more documentation the better as far as I'm concerned - I'm also fond of those lists of characters you get in Tolstoy, and the family trees in epic novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude. Probably the novel that offers most in this department is The Lord of the Rings, with its fold-out maps, and no fewer than six appendices on things like languages, chronology and pronunciation.

Riddley Walker is a slim novel, unlike these other examples, but it keeps the promise made by the map at the front: you get a world as well as a story. It's the world of the eponymous hero, and it doesn't take much scrutiny to realize that it's actually a slightly altered map of Kent, a Kent of the future where some of the landscape and all of the placenames have changed: Cambry is Canterbury, Do It Over is Dover, Sam's Itch is Sandwich, Horny Boy is Herne Bay, and so on. Only the road names eerily remain the same, but you have to walk rather than drive on them, because this is Kent several hundred years after a nuclear apocalypse.

The post-apocalypse story is one of the oldest themes in science fiction, and the post nuclear variety is the most common of all: Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, John Wyndham's The Chrysalids and several novels by Philip K.Dick, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Dr Bloodmoney and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are classic examples; more recently, Cormac McCarthy's The Road has reminded non-SF buffs of the perennial power of the theme. Apocalypse in general appeals to our fantasies of a more primitive life that may offer greater freedom or excitement - it's closely related to other fantasies of simplification, like desert island stories or pastoral poetry. But the nuclear versions, being based an all-too-possible catastrophic scenario, tend to emphasize the loss and suffering involved rather than the liberation. Often (in Miller's novel, for example), finding out exactly what went wrong is important to the characters, as is trying to reconstruct imaginatively the world before the war. That means defamiliarization comes into play; we know what our world is like, but through the efforts of the characters we get to see it as it would look from a very different perspective, and perhaps value it more as a result.

Riddley Walker is typical in this respect. The characters spend a lot of their time digging up objects from before the apocalypse (One of them is a Punch puppet from a Punch and Judy show), and a lot more time telling stories and singing songs which contain cryptic references to the earlier civilization and what happened to it. The people from "back way back" had "boats in the air and picters in the wind", but they lost it all through their fatal obsession with the "1 Big 1", the nuclear bomb. They've developed an entire culture out of the ruins of ours.

What sets this apart from other treatments of the theme is the language. Hoban's masterstroke was to invent a future version of English. Here is the funeral for Riddley's father, killed while trying to excavate a giant machine from the industrial age:
We done the berning that nite on the bye bye hump. The moon were cloudit over and a hy wind blowin. I put the 1st torch to the stack then Straiter Empy for the crowd then Rockman Bessup for Widders Dump then Lorna Elswint for las. Arnge flames upping in the dark and liting all the faces roun. Catching that time of that nite stoppt on all them faces. You cud smell the berning sharp on the air mixt with the meat smel from the divvy roof. Dogs begun to howl it were coming and going on the wind. The fire blowing in the wind and the sparks whup off into the dark and gone. Dark and gone. Before the wording we sung Sarvering Gallack Seas:

     Pas the sarvering gallack seas and flaming nebyul eye
     Power us beyont the farthes reaches of the sky
     Thine the han what shapit the black
     Guyd us there and guyd us back
This gives some idea of the power of this new language. The description would be vivid even in standard English, but it's full of mistakes or misunderstandings that not only defamiliarize but create new metaphors: galaxies become seas, nebulae become an eye. In the continuation of the passage, the "wording", where the members of the community share their memories of the dead man, it becomes clear that they've misinterpreted the word "thine" in the song; everyone sits round and "thines" hands. The language of the book is full of little touches like this, some funny, some enriching. Reading it is a unique experience.

It could be argued that Riddley Walker is too well-known by now to be considered a cult book any longer. I thought of doing a posting on Kleinzeit, which is my second favourite of Hoban's books, but in the end felt that his masterpiece simply could not be avoided. Like The Man on a Donkey, it is one of the great novels of modern times: my account here doesn't give an impression of how moving it is (the ending is shattering), but readers who don't know it can find much more on the web. Hoban died on 13 December at the age of 86; despite the fame of his best-known novel, he was a cult author through and through, taking the most outrageous risks with his writing and getting away with them more often than might be thought possible.

Since my last posting I've discovered a very recent and excellent review of The Man on A Donkey by Rosemary Mitchell in the online journal Open Letters Monthly. Like me, Mitchell sees it as a great and neglected book; she also cites the similar view of my friend Diana Wallace in her study The Woman's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000. Maybe a groundswell of support for Prescott is beginning at last - I'd like to think so.

My next posting will be on the two-volume collected works of another recently deceased writer, a brilliant satirist from the Golden Age of SF.


  1. " it's full of mistakes or misunderstandings that not only defamiliarize but create new metaphors"

    I seem to recall an interview in which he reflects that the sheer creative power of this language sometimes passed outwith his own control, in that, for instance, Eusa/USA was a purely accidental similarity, which he hadn't noticed at the time of writing! Brilliant book.

  2. It seems hard to believe, doesn't it? I suppose when you're being that creative you aren't thinking in rational, planning mode most of the time, otherwise he could surely never have missed it. But I've had similar experiences of creative serendipity as I'm sure you have.