Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Written entirely in a post-apocalyptic, reverted vernacular Riddley Walker proves to be a slow read for a book of just over 200 pages, but such close reading of the text, slowed down as you are by the bizaare slang and allusions peppered throughout, only heightens the impact of the novel. A cliche, but true: you get lost in this book.

Here's a taster of Riddley Speak for the uninitated - the first line:

"On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen."

Obvious first impressions will remind you of A Clockwork Orange, but the language of Riddley Walker is not that of a refined and stylised language, but rather a language of loss and forgotten civilisation. A catastrophe in the past, most probably a nuclear war, has left the world thinly populated and in a state of almost stone age ignorance. Superstition is rife and whatever society there is left interprets their surrounding via the creation/destruction myth of 'Eusa'. This quasi religious legend forms the backbone of a kind of local government, who maintain power and influence by travelling between villages and performing 'Eusa shows'. These shows take the form of a call and response puppet show, where various episodes from Eusa's story is performed and interpreted to fit in with local event, thus allowing the 'Prime Minister' (pry mincer) to spin his events to suit his purpose.

This is the background in which Riddley's tale unfolds, and as I already mentioned, you do get lost in the dirty magnificence of the book. Folk tales, religious philosophising, dirty jokes and a bizaare geography all collide to create a very real world and a rather frightening one at that. Its easy to see the laughable, almso qauint side of distopian fiction, at the bad mindedness and pessimism of the endevour to create a world gone bad. But I could see Riddley Walker happening - humanity would likely survive in some form or other after a major calamity and mankind would need rules and stories to make sense of the world, just as it does today.

Looking at it realistically one must come to the conclusion that Riddley is obviously deluded, that his visions and his personification of Punch are just the imagination of a simple, restricted mind. However, Hoban never lets you take such an objective view of his protagonist - as you read the novel you are overwhelmingly part of Riddley. As such his 'connexions' and 'tels', his inspired Punch rants - seemingly unearthed from a cultural unconsciousness - are real, almost magic or spiritual. Hoban is showing us how a religion is formed in an ignorant world where any answer is better than the unknown. An inspired passage in the middle of the book has the Goodparley character explaining how the unknown word "Saviour" actually refers to salt, as salt is "savery". Such strained associations seem perfectly reasonable in Riddley Walker, where great mythic importance is given to innocuous events or items, simply because some kind of connection can be made between them.

Riddley Walker is a wonderful book, still fresh and vivid, exciting and inspired. Hoban's afterwords and explanation of the genesis of the story (The Legend of St Eustace in Canterbury Cathedral) and his formation of Riddley Speak (the book took 5 years to write, and Hoban claims to have forgotten how to spell after finishing it) are fascinating - try and get hold of the anniversary or expanded editions to read these sections. This is my 3rd Russell Hoban book - I highly recommend the equally lonely, searching Fremder for nother excellent read - but Riddley Walker blows most books out of the water for imagination and audacity.

No comments:

Post a Comment