Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: "Riddley Walker" by Russell Hoban

Riddley Walker (1980) 
Russell Hoban (1925-2011)

238 pages

I dont think it makes no diffrents where you start the telling of a thing. You never know where it begun realy. No moren you know where you begun your oan self. You myt know the place and day and time of day when you ben beartht. You myt even know the place and day and time when you ben got. That dont mean nothing tho. You stil dont know where you begun.
Riddley Walker, the 12 year old title character and narrator of Russell Hoban’s novel, writes these lines early in his story, and they serve as a foreshadowing of the confusion and uncertainty that he faces throughout the novel --- and that we the readers encounter deciphering the strange language and tales of Riddley Walker and his countrymen.

As Riddley narrates his story it soon becomes clear that he lives in the far future, in a world struggling in the long aftermath of a catastrophic war and subsequent natural disasters that set civilization back to a kind of Stone Age from which it is only slowly re-emerging. Riddley’s people occupy farming and forging settlements in what had been south-eastern England, a place they call “Inland” --- the rest of England lumped together as “Outland,” a non-man’s land from which raiders occasionally come to attack and pillage. Of the world beyond the island nothing seems known.

Myths and legends play a critical role in the communities of Inland, providing explanations for the silent rubble that remains from what they know was a glorious past, and for the events and occurrences of their daily lives --- at least in this area of the post-apocalyptic world the organized religions of the pre-war world have not survived the long dark aftermath that followed the war’s destruction. With few among the people of Inland literate, the stories are past down orally, and the various communities of Inland have a “tel woman” who explains events based on the traditional stories.

The most important legend of the Inland community tells of the “time back way back” and the “Bad Times,” when man had “boats in the air” and “pictures on the wind,” but also pursued and discovered deadly secrets to the “1 Big 1” and eventually a power that was used to destroy the world. This legend forms a critical part of what holds the communities of Inland together, and is presented in a traveling puppet show sponsored by a government authority that has developed in Inland (complete with a “Pry Mincer” and a “Wes Mincer”). The show provides a cautionary tale of the misuse of knowledge and power, but the government showmen also subtly adapt its meaning to propagate their preferred policies.

In part a coming of age story, the novel takes place over the span of about a week, during which events in Riddley’s life awaken in him questions about his people’s past and future, and lead him into the middle of a high stakes power game in which it becomes difficult to tell friends from enemies. Even with the burned-out cities and the occasional human deformities serving as constant reminders of the destructive past, as farming communities have again developed and a level of stability has returned to at least their small part of the world, some among the inhabitants of Inland long for the power of their ancestors, and Riddley gets caught in their struggles, as he wrestles with the question of whether it is the pursuit of power that is evil, or only the improper use of that power.

Hoban’s novel has parallels with A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, reviewed here earlier. Unlike the majority of apocalyptic novels, it does not tell directly of the apocalyptic event but rather starts far in the future, long after that event has occurred. It also deals with the tightly entwined human desires for more knowledge and more power; for both Hoban and Miller it seems clear that these desires will repeatedly lead human civilization down the same path.  (My other reviews of post-apocalyptic fiction can be linked to from here.)

Although it takes a little time to settle into the strange language that Hoban imagines the many years of chaos and disorder have created out of modern day English, it becomes mostly clear with practice and sounding out the occasional word or phrase. What makes it a bit more complicated is that along with showing the decay of the language, Hoban intentionally altered some words and phrases to end up with double meanings that produce a comic twist. The Expanded Edition of the novel contains a short glossary at the end, with a few of the more complex words translated and explained, but I still found several that I could not make heads or tails of; fortunately the book has inspired a following that has led to web sites with annotations and other information --- one example I used frequently is titled Riddley Walker Annotations. The obtuse language pays off for the reader, however, by enhancing the story in several ways: the distance between the world these characters inhabit and our own remains palpable, and the myths and superstitions that have developed are much more effective in conveying the uncertain world in which Riddley lives.

Other reviews / information:
More information about the book at: Ocelot Factory

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION