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.