Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Let’s face it, my book group is probably thinking (to use Sir Alan’s phrase from this week’s Apprentice) there must be “a village looking for an idiot”, for I chose this book as our monthly read. No disrespect to them intended for, although we are a quite literary lot, this book was far, far away from our normal fare. A couple of us had read and enjoyed some of Hoban’s other novels, which are quirky, fun and fairly light. I said “Let’s try Riddley Walker then, it’s his cult one,” knowing nothing else about it. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for …
You see, it’s written entirely in a degenerate pidgin English – Riddleyspeak. Right from the off, you can tell it’ll be terribly difficult to read and require much concentration. For a novel of 220 pages plus intro and notes it has taken me ages to read, and I did breathe a sigh of relief at the end – but it was a strangely rewarding experience. I admit it took me about eighty pages to get into the Riddleyspeak. Before that, I was having to read everything two or three times to work it out (a short glossary at the back helps on occasion), later I could read it fairly fluently if I concentrated. It is also a novel steeped in the ancient storytelling tradition, and we frequently break off for a tale handed down and mutated through generations of post-apocalpytic folk.
Set in Kent way in the future, mankind has returned to an Iron Age existence after the 1 big 1 wiped out any normal way of life. Those that remain have to scrimp out their existence by hunting and foraging, and wild dogs make the forests unsafe for lone travellers. Although they have a simple life, the villagers and travelling gangs who put on shows are desperate to regain their clevverness; they search the dumps and ruins for clues. Rare ancient artifacts unearthed take on religious and cultural significance and are interpreted in a way that takes account of all the legends and superstitions that have grown up after the apocalypse.
Riddley is just twelve. His Dad is a connexion man in their village; a shamanistic, even clerical role to summon up words of wisdom from his sixth sense to help them make sense of this strange new world. His Dad dies in an accident and Riddley, newly initiated into manhood, takes on his role, but soon wonders that there must be more to life than this after the Eusa show arrives. He runs away, and we follow his adventures with him on his oansome and celebrate his coming of age.
Now I’ve finished the book, my first reaction after that initial sigh of relief was that I definitely need to read it again. I’m sure I’ll get so much more out of it on a second reading as it’s chock full of symbolism. The myths of the Green Man, which as a pagan symbol is scattered throughout Canterbury cathedral where Hoban got his inspiration for the book, and Punch and Judy shows in particular resonate through the book – this was fascinating, but it’ll have to wait though. It is a daunting yet rewarding read and also an important novel. The edition I read, had an interesting introduction by Will Self whose Book of Dave also employs its own dialect, and also an afterword and notes by the author, which were useful and elucidating. For a first reading I’ll rate it 7/10.
If you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction without the Riddleyspeak, you may like to try A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, in which there are obvious parallels in the worship of misinterpreted artifacts. I also plan to finally get round to reading about the nuclear winter of The Road by Cormac McCarthy as soon as I can.