I’m suspicious of sympathy; and empathy is a mysterious island whose location is known to me but which I am disinclined to visit. In truth, I find these two emotions somewhat inauthentic. I did some work while at university on the nature of our emotional responses to art and literature, focusing on what exactly is happening when people cry or feel upset when exposed to sad or unhappy stories. It struck me then, and strikes me still now, that these reactions say much more about the person feeling the upset than the object itself; there is to my mind a cynical aspect to it, whereby one first seeks out something that is likely to upset you and then find enjoyment in the upset. If the upset, the emotion, were real [and being upset is a bad thing] then one, rationally speaking, would want to avoid it. Yet, people don’t, they, in fact, look for it, encourage it, and there is something about that that makes me uncomfortable. This discomfort is made even more acute when one applies this idea to real tragedies and unhappy happenings. It is my opinion that real life stories, be them in print or on the TV, have become entertainment in much the same way. No one would admit it, of course, they may not even be conscious of it, but the same logic applies: that if those tears of yours are real, if one is not experiencing some form of pleasure, why are you not putting the newspaper/book down or turning off the TV? Why, indeed, do you actually seek these things [reports of famines, youtube footage of atrocities] out?
What is the point of all this rambling and how does it relate to the book under review here? Well, recently I have become very interested in Hiroshima, an interest that has been accompanied by a certain level of guilt. I feel as though I am using this terrible event to enrich my own intellectual life; since the beginning of this serious interest I have enjoyed the reading, have enjoyed talking about it to other people, have wallowed in the emotions engendered by what I have read and seen. As part of my interest in this subject I turned to fiction, first to Black Rain by Ibuse Masuji [which i don’t have it in me to review right now] and then to this novel, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Riddley Walker is my last stop, the end of the line of a series of intellectual connections caused by the awful event that took place, long before even my parents were born, on the 6th August 1945.
One would hope that most of one’s reviews would start with a bang; instead, let this prologue end with one…
I must point out that Riddley Walker is not in any way specifically about Hiroshima, but it is about the fall-out from a nuclear explosion. That is something that is not immediately apparent during one’s reading of the book, but a glance at the blurb on the back of any of the editions I have seen gives the game away, so I am not spoiling anything here. In fact, knowing this as one enters the novel perhaps gives you a focus, a footing, that one would otherwise not have; Riddley Walker is a disorientating experience, even more so if one does not have any prior understanding of what the novel entails. So, to sum up: Riddley Walker is the account of the titular character, a 12 year old boy, who lives in a post-apocalyptic post-nuclear England.
What distinguishes this book from other dystopian novels is the language. The most famous, most discussed, most [for me] overrated aspect of the work is the way that Hoban wrote the novel in a broken-down phonetic Slanglish, that has much in common with modern text speak. Don’t get me wrong it is an impressive enough achievement; it gives the novel an alien quality, a sense of disintegration, in keeping with its subject matter, and works to make the reader focus and concentrate fully. However, is this Slanglish really so outlandish? So special? So mindblowing? No, of course not. Nor is it as difficult to follow as some would have you believe. It is, in essence, little more than a written form of a specific regional English dialect [Kent, in this instance]. So, instead of high Hoban writes hy, instead of told, we get tol and so on. There are more complex examples [wewl, which means we will], but the point still stands. Indeed, if one has ever worked with disadvantaged people or children, which is what I have been doing since leaving university, one will have come across writing almost identical to that found in this book.
What was most impressive for me was not the written form of the language that Hoban created, but the way that he was able to inject this language with poetry. Take this sentence, from the first page when Riddley kills a boar with a spear:
He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattered his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy.
Beautiful. Even if one was to translate it, it still retains its beauty:
He did the required; he turned and stood and clattered his teeth and made his rush and there we were then. Him on one end kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him die.
An almost equally impressive feat by the author was to create myths that feel, well, genuinely mythical and fantastical [the Littl Shynin Man who was torn apart by Eusa, being one], out of events that are recognisable to us, events that took place in our time [the splitting of the atom etc], ordinary events that have been transmogrified into something strange and mystical in Riddley’s time. You’re never explicitly told what happened to bring about the Inland [England] of Riddley’s time; instead one has to piece it together by reinterpreting and decoding the stories, the myths, that the characters tell each other. On Riddley: as I mentioned earlier, it is he who narrates the novel, and his voice, regardless of the snazzy eye-catching grammar and spelling, is a joy to read; it is wise and wide-eyed and tender, like a Huck Finn from the future.
I wrote, in the prologue for this review, about stories that move or upset us, and Riddley Walker did, indeed, touch me intensely. It did so, however, not in the way that I expected. I anticipated that the novel would be as similarly bleak and manipulatively heart-tugging as The Road by Cormac McCarthy and expected to have Hiroshima in mind throughout my reading, but neither was the case. I didn’t weep this-is-terrible tears, but felt something more profound. Riddley Walker drew my mind away from suffering, and how destructive humanity can be, and reminded me of the wonderful things that we are capable of, things like this special book.