New earth on the barrens

As part of my quest to read every apocalyptic novel ever published, I’ve just finished Riddley Walker by John Russell Hoban (1980). It was recommended to me by a co-worker, and I can’t believe I’d never heard of it before. In case you don’t know it either, it takes place in England roughly two thousand years after planet-wide nuclear holocaust, and the whole thing is written in a dialect Hoban invented, a guess at what the people of Kent might sound like at such time.

Which is probably why I’d never heard of it. It’s hard going, especially at first, and though the book is not long, there are not many characters, and the few events take place over about three weeks’ time, it’s taken me about two weeks to finish it. Will Self later wrote a novel called The Book of Dave, also many years post-apocalypse, written in a dialect developed from a depressed London cabbie, and I haven’t managed to finish it yet (though I will). The religion in the book is based on the cabbie’s journal, a brilliant idea. Years before I heard of this book, I thought of writing a post-apocalyptic story in which various groups of survivors have each managed to hold onto or find one book from one section of a bookstore: the diet section. One group, the Atkinsians, are at war with the people on the other side of the hill, who follow the Law of the South Beach. That’s about as far as I got. If anyone reading this would like to write that story, please do; I’d love to read it.

Anyway. The story of Riddley Walker follows a young man, living in a sort of Iron Age Kent, as he puzzles out the meaning of the local religion. This is based on chemistry and physics as well as on the only surviving fragment of pre-disaster writing, a short piece on the legend of Saint Eustace, a medieval painting in Canterbury Cathedral. The Saint Eustace, or Eusa people –

Let me interject here. The made-up dialect is rich in rewards for those inclined to play with language. For example, Eusa could be just a rendering of Eustace, or it could stand for USA, where nuclear weapons were first developed, or it could be a bastardization of Jesus, or it could mean used to, or a number of other interpretations. This is part of what makes the book slow reading.

The Eusa people seem to be feeling their way back to an understanding of nuclear fission, while the secretive dyers and charcoal burners have passed down a recipe in song for making gunpowder. And the whole thing revolves around puppet shows, including Punch and Judy.

It’s mind-bending, but it’s what I call a true story, meaning it’s made up (obviously) but what it’s talking about is fundamental Truth. In the end, it’s a meditation on our place in the universe, and on power and human nature. It’s very similar in that theme to A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter Miller, Jr. (1960). As one of the characters says to Riddley Walker,

“Riddley you know as wel as I do if you put 1 figger on your right han and a nother on your lef the 1 wil go agenst the other some how some time.”

Give a man a stick, he’ll whack another man with it. If he finds a rock, he’ll use that. Human society will always be driven to create bigger and better ways to kill each other. War is in our nature. But is it our nature? Individuals can transcend it, but can we do it as a species?

Remains to be seen. For some reason I’m faintly optimistic, or I suppose I wouldn’t have become a Buddhist. And like all frustrated idealists, I’m cynical as well.

The same character says, shortly before making the above point, “Riddley do you think theres hoap of any thing?” And Riddley replies, “Theres new earf on the barrens all the time.” He’s referring to the soil and growing things slowly, very slowly, encroaching on the blasted plain that surrounds the nuked Canterbury.

Or maybe he’s referring to the slow changes that can transform mankind.

9 Responses to “New earth on the barrens”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    Dammit, I just hit the wrong key and the comment disappeared! Grrrr.

    Anyway, to reconstruct: According to one history I read of the mid-late medieval period, folks in one village might not be able to understand folks from another nearby village: since villagers might not ever leave the boundaries of their birth-place, dialectical idiosyncracies could take hold and make a common language, well, not so common.

    As to human nature, I follow Arendt in her contention that we have no good way determining our nature, but that we can say something about our condition as humans. She’d also agree with Riddley in his discourse on hope, insofar as she noted the centrality of natality, with its attendant possibilities and unpredictabilities, to a truly human life.

  2. soundofrain Says:

    I mistyped my name on your blog and keep forgetting to correct it. :/

    Chinese nationals speak something like 500 different languages and dialects, across five language families. Cool, but difficult in an age of globalization. It’s a shame when a language dies – what thoughts could only be expressed in that language? – but, like Doritoes, we’ll make more. Communication is what we do.

    Can you expand on the relationship between natality, which I read as birthrate, and a truly human life? I can see that new people = new ideas, at least theoretically, but I don’t really know what you mean.

  3. HauntedHarpsichord Says:

    Post-apocalyptic stories mixed with dialectology/linguistics? Sounds like an aphrodisiac to me :> I will most definitely look into reading those stories….
    I also love the idea of post-apocalypse life based on “ancient” diet “quackery” – the irony and dark humor there is very rich. I think YOU should write that story :> I’d buy and read it., as would many others.

  4. absurdbeats Says:

    I simplified things somewhat, as Arendt in ‘The Human Condition’ offers a multi-layered argument on a variety of human activities and their relationship to the human activity par excellence, action. (That’s a whole nother discussion.)

    Anyway, natality matters in the most basic sense insofar as birth is required for there to be any people (as there would with any species); but it is significant insofar as ‘the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought.’

    That last point is particularly important, as she roots the highest form of human activity, [political] action, in the world: it is in the world (not in some dream of heaven or gods) that we become human, in living as humans that we may become them—become ourselves.

    She later ties this point more tightly to her understanding of politics and of freedom, but this point overlaps with yours and Riddley’s: ‘The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability. . . . The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable.’ Which means, of course, is that we are—or are at least capable of—unpredictability, the lifeblood of politics.

    I could go off on the idiosyncrasy of her definition of politics and why I like it, but I’ll spare you my words and give the last ones to Arendt: ‘The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, . . . ‘

  5. Nature Guy Says:

    I read this again after reading your review. Riddley is the Huckleberry Finn of the Apocalypse. It is a captivating and creative masterpiece that I had almost forgot about. Thanks for jogging my memory!

  6. Finzi Holst Says:

    It’s Russell Hoban. One of the finest living authors.

  7. soundofrain Says:

    Corrected, thank you! And, agreed.

  8. Professordave Says:

    Have you read Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany? I think that should be next on your list, if you haven’t read it yet.

  9. soundofrain Says:

    I’ve never heard of it! It sounds potentially mind-blowing. I’ve put it on my list, thank you!

    Right now I’m reading Summer of the Apocalypse by James van Pelt – absolutely beautiful – I will post a review when I’m finished.

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