Saturday, 30 May 2009

Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban

Like most books written in an ‘invented’ language, this is hard work. Unlike most, the hard part is not so much in getting used to the vocabulary (it is no more difficult in that respect than reading Shakespeare); it is in the fact you have to read every single word. That might sound an odd statement, but normally an experienced reader will read whole phrases and sentences. With this book you cannot do that. You have to slow down and work at the pace of the narrator.

This is no bad thing because this is a book well worth getting into that deeply. Exploring each word and the impact it has, exploring each idea and how that is integral to the story, these are essential to get the most out of this tale.

It is no surprise that it took the author five years to write. And not just because of the language. Because this is a deeply subtle book composed of many layers. On the surface, we follow the narrator through several weeks in his life in a post apocalyptic Kent landscape. It is more than two millennia since a nuclear war, and society has pulled itself back up to a level somewhat on a par with our Iron Age ancestors.

Yet this is no science fiction romp. It is a meditation on power, on human relationships, on religion and spirituality, and on the relationship of humanity with the rest of the world. But it manages this with an affecting tale in which a young man comes of age and tries to find a new path to follow, one that eschews the old forms of governance that led before to the holocaust.

The telling of the tale is smoothly done (despite, or perhaps because of, the need to go slowly). The action and the meditation are integral one to the other. There is a tremendous sense of the natural world in which the story takes place. Equally there is a tremendous sense of history, of the centuries of painful resurrection from the devastating destruction. It has a poetic quality of the sort to be found in folk tales, a depth that is to be found there as well.

In short, it is a great book. It is certainly one you should read if you are interested in just how much language can be made to do; how much depth can be conveyed with a fairly limited vocabulary. And if you do read it, try to get the edition with the Introduction by Will Self as it also has some illuminating notes by Russell Hoban.