This is a ghost story, and we the readers are the ghosts.
When I heard that Russell Hoban has died, I felt that I had to do something to mark his passing. My nom de plume on readers site Shelfari is Riddley, a name lifted from this book. It is probably the book that has left the greatest impression on me over a lifetime of reading, and rereading it feels like going home.
So we are ghosts, and now Russell is a ghost. But why is this book so special?
Firstly it's the language, an extraordinary achievement where the changes that have occurred to language seem to tell the story of the time that has passed since our time. A simple example is "vack your wayt", clearly descended from evacuate, a word resonant with disaster. It, like other compound words, has been broken down into smaller components and now also has the meaning of carrying your load, a sense of the nomadic existence that has been lived.
The world of Riddley is FUTURE medieval - seeing what people call knowledge and science gives us a perspective on our own pretensions to KNOW the world we live in. In Riddley Walker we can see what has been forgotten but also we can see that progress can also involve a different type of FORGETTING. What is being forgotten is the danger of some forms of knowledge and power. James Joyce had Stephen Dedalus say "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." In Riddley Walker history is a nightmare into which people are trying to awake.
The novel begins as Riddley "come 12". In a rite to mark his becoming an adult he "kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs." Riddley lives with a group who are still hunter-gatherers but they are increasingly surrounded by farm settlements and they work for "The Ram". The whole 'naming day' feels "jus tht littl bit stupid" to Riddley. The wilderness is being tamed. His is a dying culture.
here). The towns have watchmen posted by The Ram and they are all in a state of collapse and advanced decay. There are packs of wild dogs that roam the countryside and for this reason most people will only travel in groups of at least six. One place name is Dog Et and this is not an unusual way to meet your end. People who are dog frendy are not trusted but there are some.
Names are also a signifier of the violence and brutality that is normal in this world. Each fents has their own heavys, one is called Fister Crunchman. The leaders of The Ram are the Pry Mincer and the Wes Mincer. Mincer captures both its origins in Minister and an undertone of threat. Working songs, the chants of children and puppet shows are the repository of lost knowledge. Songs and stories have been passed from mouth to mouth over centuries.
"London Town is drownt this day
Hear me say walk a way
Sling your bundel tern and go
Parments in the mud you know
Greaf and woe dont you know
Pick it up its time to go"
The whole action of the novel takes place within a short time frame. Three days after his naming day Riddley's father Brooder dies in an accident as the men from How Fents tried to raise a "girt big rottin iron thing" from the ground. "Til then any thing big we all ways bustit up in the hoal." Now someone is clearly trying to reclaim some technology from our time. In these few days, however, is concentrated a sense of all that has passed in the 2347 years of the new count.
Brooder was the "connexion man" at How Fents (situated near what used to be Wye, or WHY?). He would be called on to interpret the fit up shows that were put on by The Ram. These shows were based on Punch and Judy shows, and told the story of how Mr Clevver (with red face and horns) enticed Eusa to find "that 1 big 1." Riddley now takes over this role and throughout the book he is always trying to interpret the meaning behind things.
When he finds an old Punch figure while digging he doesn't hand it over, feeling that it has some meaning for him. Instead he jumps the fence and runs. And as he runs he causes things to happen and is a witness to them.
He becomes dog frendy, meets the Ardship of Cambry, who is of "crookit stock" and seems to have telepathic abilities. Politicians rise and fall and some ancient knowledge is resurrected. It ends with Riddley on the road, affirming the power of storytelling and the need to ask WHY? as well as HOW?
I look forward to rereading Riddley again, and again. It is one of the very few books that inspire me to do this.