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Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1980) 235 p.

This is another book, like Typee, that I’d been meaning to read after reading its inspired-by equivalent in my favourite book of all time, Cloud Atlas. The section “Sloosha’s Crossin” is largely derived from Russell Hoban’s classic post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker – particularly from its bizarre and fascinating use of language. I’ve had this on my shelf for a while, but Russell Hoban passed away last month, and I’ve developed a morbid habit of reading authors’ books after they die. Cards on the table, I’ve been meaning to re-read my beloved Discworld series for some time, but Terry Pratchett, well…

Anyway. Riddley Walker is set about 2000 years in the nuclear-devastated future, in a community in Kent that has regressed to Iron Age technology, and is written in first-person point of view by the titular twelve year-old “man,” in an English that has degenerated to a phoenetic level.

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kild 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.

Normally I read books in my mind in my own Australian accent, regardless of where or when they are set. I found I couldn’t read Riddley Walker in anything other than the accent of Hagrid from Harry Potter – West Country, right?

Hoban took five years to write this book, and said that by the end of it he had become a bad speller. Riddley’s language is primitive but consistent, with undeclared but definitive rules, and we later found out that literacy in his society is actually a closely guarded secret. It’s something of a through-the-looking-glass moment when we see his society’s religious text, handed down from shortly after the nuclear war, which is even more degenerate:

13. Eusa wuz angre he wuz in rayj & he kept pulin on the Littl Man the Addoms owt stretcht arms. The Littl Man the Addom he begun tu cum apart he cryd, I wan tu go I wan tu stay. Eusa sed, Tel mor. The Addom sed, I wan tu dark I wan tu lyt I wan tu day I wan tu nyt. Eusa sed, Tel mor. The Addom sed, I wan tu woman I wan tu man. Eusa sed, Tel mor. Addom sed, I wan tu plus I wan tu minus I wan tu big I wan tu littl I wan tu aul I wan tu nuthing.

The broken English, however carefully crafted, could easily be nothing more than a gimmick if Hoban wasn’t capable of telling a deeper story. Fortunately, he is. Riddley Walker is everything good post-apocalyptic fiction is supposed to be: creative, imaginative, gripping and literary. The language certainly slows the pace down and makes for difficult reading; normally a book of this size would take me half the time to read that it did. But once you grow used to it, you fall into the flow of the story, and find that Riddley regularly comes up with passages that – translated back into regular English – would not be out of place in a literary novel.

There wernt nothing terbel happening and yet there wer. Whats so terbel its just that knowing of the horrer in every thing. The horrer waiting. I dont know how to say it. Like say you myt get cut bad and all on a suddn there you are with your leg opent up and youre looking at the mussl fat and boan of it. You always knowit what wer unner the skin only you dont want to see that bloody meat and boan. Never mynd.

Riddley Walker is a difficult book to read and certainly not for everyone, but it is absolutely a classic of post-apocalyptic fiction, and deserves all the praise it receives.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (2011) 206 p.

Siobhan Dowd came up with the idea for this novel before dying of breast cancer, and passed it on to the children’s author Patrick Ness. In the introduction, Ness explains that he didn’t want the book to become a hamfisted attempt to imitate Dowd, and so used it as a seed for other ideas, writing his own book with the basic outline of what Dowd had given him. We’ll never know what Dowd would have written, but judging from the actual product, Ness made a good decision.

A Monster Calls follows Connor O’Malley, a boy growing up somewhere in the British Isles, who is watching his mother slowly die of cancer. Bullied at school, treated with unbearable sympathy by his teachers and peers, and estranged from his father who lives in America with a new wife and child, he has withdrawn into a private, alienated world of grief and anger. One night, at seven minutes past midnight, a monster visits Connor. It demands to know “the truth” from him, and begins to visit him regularly, telling him a series of stories. These stories are not the simple fairytales one would expect from stories with their structure. They are not fables about good and evil, but morally complex tales involving characters faced with difficult decisions. Connor dreads the passing of the stories, because the monster has told him that at the end of the telling, he expects to hear a story from Connor – by which he means “the truth.”

This is clearly, from the outset, an allegorical tale – but it’s not the allegory I expected, and it’s a deeper book than I thought it would be. It’s enhanced with dark, black-and-white, scratchy illustrations by Jim Kay, which are absolutely vital to the success of the book. They melt in and out of the text itself, lending a disturbing atmosphere that would be absent otherwise. The monster itself – a huge, bristling, spiked creature that spawns from a yew tree and is only ever seen in darkness – is foreboding and ominous, the drawcard of the book, just as Frank the rabbit is the drawcard of “Donnie Darko” or the Pale Man is the drawcard of “Pan’s Lanbyrinth.” They’re creepy, creative and fantastic, but not load-bearing. They’re surrounded by well-crafted stories that do them justice.

A Monster Calls is a perfect example of a book in that elusive category: children’s/YA books that can be enjoyed equally by adults. With the sparse text and frequent illustrations, it can be read in a couple of sittings – although ideally you’d read it on a dark and stormy night in a rural house in Ireland, not on a 38 degree day on the Sydenham line, like I did. It’s also, thanks to Jim Kay’s illustrations, one of those books that’s a pleasure to regard simply as an object. A Monster Calls is a dark, sad and profound story about coping with grief which I can recommend to anyone.

A Monster Calls at The Book Depository

Shooting Stars and Flying Fish by Nancy Knudsen (2011) 315 p.

I have a vague idea that I’d like to go sailing one day, largely for the travel rather than the sport, and so I read this book just to get a feel for that idea – also because I got a free proof copy from my old bookstore job. That essentially means that this is a light break from “real” reading, which I would normally review in a paragraph or two. Instead the author irritated me with her patronising and condescending attitudes towards foreign cultures, so this is going to be a rant about Orientalism. I feel like I have the right to dwell on this, because the book sure does.

Shooting Stars and Flying Fish is an account of Nancy Knudsen’s four-year sailing voyage with her husband Ted, leaving Sydney on their yacht Blackwattle and circumnivagating the globe through the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific. I suspect much of it, particularly the second half, is assembled from articles Knudsen wrote for Sail-World magazine; the chapters seem to have a brief, self-contained aspect to them. Knudsen’s writing is technically competent, and although she is prone to cliches and excessive adverbs, her writing is readable enough and certainly better than, say, Steve Crombie’s in Lost On Earth. (She does write the entire book in present tense, though, which is a pet peeve of mine.)

What mostly bothered me about Shooting Stars and Flying Fish was that it was very clearly, from the outset, going to be a travel memoir about rich people who leave behind stuffy jobs and discover How Stressed And Hassled People In The First World Are, and How Genuine And Happy The People In The Third World Are, and Who Is Truly The Most Fortunate, Am I Right?

I’ve written about this topic before, but I’m not sure I’ve come across as perfect an example of it as Knudsen’s blissfully naive (or editorially selective) travel writings. My choice example would be Eritrea, a country on the coast of Africa. Knudsen acknowledges that the country has seen war, and that the capital is largely in ruins, but then seems quite smitten with the place:

Among the dereliction, people walk with pride and patience… the shopkeepers greet us hospitably… We stop, like the locals, at the makeshift bars under the night sky, enjoying the bonhomie and music which defy their poor surroundings… We sit, included for a while in the warm embrace of the family…

Her husband offers this gem of originality:

“Look how they live. They have nothing. But, you know, they really have everything, everything in the world that is important.”

Judging from Knudsen’s basic run-down, you get the impression that the Eritrea is a poor country, but one where people get by with what they can and appreciate the simple things in life. Except – whoops! – she forgot to mention it’s also a dictatorial one-party state with one of the most shocking human rights records on the planet. Eritreans have literally no rights, government kidnappings are common, female genital mutilation rates hover around 90%, and it ranks dead last on the Press Freedom Index – worse even than North Korea.

I’m not saying that living under a brutal Orwellian regime means that Eritreans are incapable of being happy about anything, though I expect it would certainly put a crimp in things. I’m just saying it might have been worth a sentence or two. Otherwise one might get the impression that Knudsen is sailing across the world without taking anything in, blissfully unaware of the realities of people’s lives, marvelling about how “simply” they live and how good that must be for their souls, before returning to her mod-con outfitted yacht.

But she can’t be entirely clueless. I mean, she did meet a teenager who told her he was planning on fleeing the country before being conscripted into the army for his seven-year stint as part the government’s military machine:

While it is easy to condemn this teenager for whose freedom so many have given their lives, it is also easy to understand a young soul who thinks of seven years as an eternity – indeed, it is exactly a third of his life so far.

Wait, what?

easy to condemn this teenager for whose freedom so many have given their lives

What? Who are you even talking about? Other soldiers in the Eritrean Army? “Harden up, Mohammed, it’s just seven years’ service to your evil government, it’ll build character, you young scamp!” Yes, I know she then says that it’s also “easy to understand,” but the fact that she even prefaced it with saying that it was “easy to condemn” – who the flying fuck would find it “easy to condemn” a teenager trying to escape becoming a tool of government oppression in a country with less human rights than North Korea?

Moving on. As Knudsen herself moves up the Red Sea, she is beset with doubt. Doubt about her simplistic and frankly embarassing perceptions of the Third World? No, doubt about whether she wants to return to the First World, where she fears that “there will be noise, tension, crowding, discord, pollution…” I’m sorry? Nancy Knudsen must have visited a very different Third World than I did. Some of kind of mirror-image Third World. Perhaps an oceanic Third World, where she moved about in a comfortable, modern, yacht that she could call her own, rather than one where she regularly had to slog through filth-strewn slums with thousands upon thousands of human beings who never shut up. I, too, remember how terrible it was to return to the First World, where people didn’t shit in the streets, where garbage was collected by government employees, where it wasn’t just a nicer place to be but also a place where people wouldn’t die of easily avoidable diseases simply because they had no choice but to live in their own filth.

Because that’s the crux of the matter, really. I can turn my nose up at the smells and chaos of the Third World, and that’s my albatross to carry, but the real problem is health and safety. These things have a real and visceral impact on the lives of people living in the Third World. It is not a snobbish Western conceit. It is a grim fact of life which means that people in the Third World have life expectancies in the 40s and 50s, skyrocketing infant mortality, rampaging famine, widespread AIDS and malaria, low literacy and education rates and very little chance of improving their lot in life.

That is why we send humanitarian missions there. That is why they try to leave their countries, immigrating en masse to the developed world in the hope of a better life. That is why they continue building coal plants despite knowing full well about global warming – because they don’t want their people to live in miserable poverty any longer. That is why I get so angry when wealthy Westerners like Nancy Knudsen coo about how “simple” and “happy” their lives are. Here is an observation she makes from the deck of her expensive yacht:

There’s still mist around – a brown mist to the north over Europe, that bastion of progress and modernity, and a pure white mist to the south over Africa, that backward continent that hasn’t learned properly yet how to poison the air it breathes.

I know I sure would prefer to be born in the Congo rather than Germany! Your chances of dying during childbirth are certainly no greater than one in five, and if you live to be twelve, you can look forward to a pleasant future career as a gun-toting rapist in the Lord’s Resistance Army!

Now, look. I’m not saying that everybody in the Third World lives a life of utter misery, that one is incapable of true happiness without modern conveniences (Nancy Knudsen would probably point to iPods and TVs and sports cars; I would point to electricity, clean drinking water and trained medical doctors.) Humans are resilient creatures and capable of being happy in difficult circumstances – particularly if they don’t know any better.

What I take issue with is Knudsen consistently painting all Third Worlders as always happy – and, conversely, all First Worlders as always unhappy (even if they don’t know it, because it hasn’t yet been pointed out them by the Enlightened Traveller). Maybe I take more of an issue with that, actually. It’s like seeing a self-help book titled “I Can Make You Happy.” Just because Nancy Knudsen wasn’t satisfied with her high-luxury but high-pressure life doesn’t mean every Westerner is unhappy with their life and their society. I’m willing to bet most people she met in Eritrea or Panama or wherever would have been quite happy to trade places with her.

This prevailing wisdom – this idea that, really, deep down, Third Worlders are better off than we are – smacks of self-denial. It’s a subconscious way of assuaging our guilt about living at the top apex of luxury in the world, the glory of our safe and convenient lifestyles built on the sweat and labour of the billions of people ground beneath the capitalist jackboot in the developing world. That’s a guilt that nobody who travels through poverty can escape, but there are better ways of dealing with it than constructing a fantasy in which poor people live lives free of modern “trappings,” while we languish under the burden of wealth and luxury which, somehow, prevents us from achieving “true” happiness.

True happiness has nothing to do with wealth or luxury. It’s a separate thing entirely. Living in the First World merely allows you to be safe, healthy and comfortable while you set out attaining it, because you aren’t hiding from the Janjaweed during your daily nine-mile trek to get drinking water. Read Shooting Stars and Flying Fish if you want to read an average travel memoir with healthy lashings of naive, condescending generalisations.

Shooting Stars and Flying Fish at The Book Depository

Bliss by Peter Carey (1981) 282p.

Peter Carey is one of the greatest living novelists, widely tipped to become both Australia’s next Nobel prize winner for literature and the first man to win three Booker prizes. In 2010 I read his second Booker-prize winner, True History of the Kelly Gang, and found it to be a good book that only grew stronger in my memory. So it seems like a good idea to read his entire canon.

Bliss is his first novel, following the unfortunate circumstances of Harry Joy, who has a heart attack one day and dies for nine minutes before being resuscitated. He comes back to find that his wife is cheating on him, his son is selling drugs and his advertising company has for years been promoting carcinogens. He believes himself to literally be in hell.

There’s a strange, semi-dreamlike feeling hanging over much of Bliss, as though you’re reading it through a clouded pane of glass. This is a stylistic choice; apparently many of Carey’s early works have an essence of magical realism to them. Certainly, Carey seems to draw inspiration from Borges and Marquez; South America is often mentioned, and the novel takes place in an unspecified tropical land which is probably Queensland, the prose thick with frangipani and jacarandas and banana trees.

I guess it’s a decent book. It’s the kind of novel that’s difficult to review, because I personally found it boring yet I know it’s objectively good. I still want to read more of Carey, and I own his next book, Illywhacker, but I may skip past that and read his Booker-winning Oscar and Lucinda or the intriguing Jack Maggs.

2011 was my personal best year yet for books – 55, although that includes four graphic novels and two quarterly essays. Here’s my annual list of the best books I read for the year (not the best books that were published in the year).

10. A Little History of the World

What we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave. But we must make use of that moment. It is worth the effort.

History is a huge, complex and difficult subject, which is why we often prefer to learn about it from blockbuster films or period dramas and thus come away somewhat misinformed. You are never going to get a comprehensive understanding of human history unless you dedicate your life to it, but if you have a merely casual interest, A Little History of the World is not a bad place to start. Commendable for his understanding that history is more about opinions, attitudes and how societies relate to each other than it is about dates and battles, Gombrich brings this book to life with the air of a scholarly grandfather telling his children a story by the fireplace.

A Little History of the World at The Book Depository

9. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

“Welcome to England!”

The concept of having thousands of fictional characters stuffed into one world didn’t greatly appeal to me as much as I thought it would, but the second volume of Alan Moore’s thought experiment is largely a retelling of War of the Worlds, and is terrifyingly brilliant. That means it’s largely piggybacking off the success of another work, but whatever. I do intend to read the original someday.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen at The Book Depository

8. The Testament of Jessie Lamb

I felt as flat and heavy as if a steamroller were on top of me. I just wanted it to end.

It can be diffcult – almost impossible – to writte a novel from a teenager’s perspective without it becoming an insufferable moanfest. And indeed, The Testament of Jessie Lamb features all the uncertainty and naivitie and foolishness and foot-stamping that one would expect from a novel narrated by a teenage girl. Yet it’s also a much darker novel, about the intersection between our acknowledgement that sacrifices must be made for the greater good, and our hostile unwillingness to actually let our loved ones make them. There’s also a darker, implicit undercurrent running through this book – or at least I thought there was – about Jessie’s real motives.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb at The Book Depository

7. The English Patient

Give me a map and I’ll build you a city. Give me a pencil and I’ll draw you a room in South Cairo, desert charts on the wall. Always the desert was among us. I could wake and raise my eyes to the map of old settlements along the Mediterranean coast – Gazala, Tobruk, Mersa Matruh – and south of that the hand-painted wadis, and surrounding those the shades of yellowness that we invaded, tried to lose ourselves in.

A difficult book to read after seeing the masterful film, since the scenes are often identical and the visual version plays itself out in your mind as you read. But Ondaatje’s novel is undoubtedly one of the finest of the last decade (I cannot understand why it shared the Booker with Sacred Hunger), a melancholy tale of desert exploration and forbidden love and Italian castles and bombs raining down on England. His lyrical prose style is, quite simply, beautiful.

The English Patient at The Book Depository

6. The Road To Wigan Pier

On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances. The most dreadful thing about people like the Brookers is the way that they say the same things over and over again. It gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all, but a kind of ghost forever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole.

Lord knows how a book about the miserable conditions of the working class in Depression-era North England managed to be funny, but somehow Orwell managed it. He also manages to be a spoilt Southern lad turning his nose up at the characteristics and mannerisms of the wretched poor without ever seeming like a jerk. The Road To Wigan Pier is, as always with his books, “both an excellent book and a valuable social document,” and the fact that Orwell can keep your interest even when discussing the vanished political situations of the 1930s is a testament to his ability as a writer.

The Road To Wigan Pier at The Book Depository

5. Homage To Catalonia

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal Weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

George Orwell went and fought for something he deeply believed in. As so often happens with things we deeply believe in, it became corrupted, and he became more gradually disillusioned with it until it came to the point where he was actually a fugitive and was forced to flee the country. Homage To Catalonia is a deeply political book, and can be difficult going for the modern reader, but like A Road To Wigan Pier it is well worth the effort. It contains not just an account of its own time, but a deeper examination of human experience. Being a stranger in a foreign land, watching your beliefs be compromised and corrupted by the subversion of powerful forces, and the final prescient remarks mixed in with the nostalgic joy of returning home.

Homage To Catalonia at The Book Depository

4. Maus

“I know this is insane, but sometimes I wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents, so I could really know what they lived through.”

We have reached saturation point with the Holocaust – with all of World War II, in fact. At least I have. The sights and sounds and facts and feelings have bombarded me my entire life, and the generation before me as well. It holds about as much reality to me as the War of the Ring, and stirs no emotion within me. This is a sad thing, but the answer is not yet more Holocaust and world War II stories.

The reason I found Maus to be so engaging was that it is not simply a Holocaust story, relying on its own historical weight for emotional punch, like so many Oscar bait movies. I’s about growing up as the son of a Holocaust survivor, about spending your whole life hearing about the horrors of something you can’t even imagine. It’s about dealing with someone who, despite being a victim of a terrible crime, is a bit of an asshole. It’s about coping with the long and far-reaching ramifications of something as huge and terrible of the Holocaust. It’s about having creative and financial success after writing a series of comic books about a genocide you never experienced. It’s about many, many things, all of them ripple effects of the 20th century’s greatest crime. Maus is an elegant, thoughtful and profoundly sad masterpiece.

Maus at The Book Depository

3. The Sisters Brothers

He stood there weeping and watching us go, while behind him Lucky Paul entered and collapsed the prospector’s tent, and I thought, “Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.”

A very, very weird book, flippant and off-beat and darkly humourous and however many thousand adjectives various reviewers used to describe it. The best word, I believe, is “”unique. It is certainly a funny book, a dark comedy, and yet it is also entirely serious and, towards the end, even touching. It is undoubtedly a literary book, and one worthy of Booker shortlisting – better than The Sense of an Ending, certainly.

The Sisters Brothers at The Book Depository

2. The White Tiger

Now, what happens in your typical Murder Weekly story – or Hindi film, for that matter? A poor man kills a rich man. Good. Then he takes the money. Good. Then he gets dreams in which the dead man pursues him with bloody fingers, saying Mur-der-er, Mur-der-er.
Doesn’t happen like that in real life… The real nightmare you get is the other kind. You toss about in the bed dreaming that you haven’t done it – that you lost your nerve and let Mr. Ashok get away – that you’re still in Delhi, still the servant of another man, and then you wake up.

There are seven billion people in the world. One billion of those live in luxury in the developed regions of Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. Seven billion of those live in the less developed regions of Asia, Africa and South America, in circumstances ranging from the reasonably comfortable middle-class of China to the crushing, squalid poverty of Sudan.

This is not fair.

It’s an issue entirely separate from that of political oppression. If you were to pick the most wretched nation on Earth, you might well choose North Korea. But even in India – the world’s largest democracy, albeit a corrupt one – millions of people live in their own filth, with no hope of anything better. They live in an almost medieval world, which we cannot even imagine in our world of skyscrapers and frappucinos and iPhones.

The White Tiger is a novel about those worlds colliding. It’s not what I’d call an enjoyable story; it’s an allegory, a book with a definite point to it, and a book that I believe is absolutely essential reading, but which I will probably never read again. It’s a book about a man born into dire poverty who realises how bitterly unjust that fate is – and who, after much agonising soul-searching, murders an innocent man in order to lift himself out of that fate. I can’t sum it up any better than I did in my review:

Who among us truly knows what horrible things we would be capable of doing to escape Balram’s fate? Who among us has the right to judge him?

A dark and gripping novel about the greatest injustice that exists in our world.

The White Tiger at The Book Depository

1. Jamrach’s Menagerie

A mess of them like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass, a red and pink rag trailing festoons, the grinning head of which, half severed and hanging back, revealed it to be one of their own. Another watching, a huge thing, solid and impassive as a rock, huge, trunk-like legs planted before it.

Jamrach’s Menagerie begins on an exciting wave of youthful exuberance, adventure and discovery, and plunges into an abyss of horrific misery. Eight-year old Jaffy Brown is rescued from an escaped tiger in Dickensian London, and is given a job tending to the menagerie of the tiger’s owner. A few years later he finds himself enlisted on a sea voyage to capture a Komodo dragon, forming bonds with his fellow teenage sailors and his best friend Tim as they get up to all manner of exciting escapades. The Azores, a whale hunt, tropical islands, the prize of the dragon…

…and everything collapses. Jaffy and his friends are embroiled in a living nightmare, every step and every page dragging them further along a hellish path of survival. In the hands of a lesser author this would seem like an incongruous twist. In the hands of Carol Birch, it struck me as realistic. We go through our lives, we enjoy ourselves, we have fun, and then disaster and terror and the explicit, visceral nature of the physical world we live in looms up out of nowhere. The routine of life masks that reality like our skin masks our organs.

I have never read a scene more heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching than that which occurs between Tim and Jaffy at the climax of this novel. I literally couldn’t put it down. Carol Birch was robbed of a Booker prize.

Jamrach’s Menagerie at The Book Depository

Removed for publication – you can read the story, now renamed “Flight,” in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #43.

Archive Calendar

January 2012