Riddley Walker

As part of my (actually now-floundering) attempt to read an average of one book per week, I’ve been spreading my reading about, taking in books by authors who I feel I ought to have read but haven’t (Hemmingway, Greene), translated literature by foriegn authors I’ve never heard of (Calvino, GutiĆ©rrez) and current popular fiction (Safran-Foer, Niffenegger). There’s also one, dreaded category that I touch upon only rarely: books that have been on my shelf and remained unread, in some cases for up to fifteen years.

These are books that I’ve carried around from place to place, always promising myself that one day I’d get around to reading them, and I never did, ever. I look at them now and find they all have bookmarks or folded corners about four or five pages in, but I’ve no memory of even doing that.

But this year, things will be different; indeed, I’ve already managed to make it through Paul J McCauley’s Fairyland, purchased in ’95 or so. It turned out to be a bit rubbish, sadly — like many SF books written in the ’90s it suffers from a dated perception of how the internet was going to turn into a highly-complex virtual reality environment involving goggles and gloves, rather than the sluggish, ad- and porn-ridden waste of time we now know it to be.

I’ve also begun reading Walter M. Miller’s Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, a sequel to the genuine classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, though I approach this sequel with some trepidation having heard that the author suffered writer’s block towards the end, handed it over to another author for completion claiming that ‘any idiot with a sense of humour could finish this’, and then killed himself.

But those two are easy; unchallenging. I can’t explain exactly why I bought them but never read them, but I’m sure you understand how these things are; the thrill of the new, and all that. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, now, that’s a different story.

Walker is my name and I am the same

I first encountered this book at university, as part of my studies of science fiction (yes, I studied science fiction at university). It’s set in the south-east of England, quite some time after a nuclear war. Riddley Walker is the main character and the narrator of the story, a boy who finds himself suddenly in authority after his father dies. He takes on the role of ‘connexion man’, who is the one responsible for interpreting the travelling puppet shows that act as religion, government propaganda and entertainment.

These puppet shows tell the story of the nuclear war, as seen through the eyes of generation after generation of Chinese whispers and ignorance — a figure known as ‘Eusa’ who becomes greedy through ‘clevverness’, and who uses technology to pull apart the ‘Littl Shining Man’, and so on. It is not a particularly easy read:

Coming back with the boar on a poal we come a long by the rivver it wer hevvyer woodit in there. Thru the girzel you cud see blue smoak hanging in be twean the black trees and the stumps pink and red where they ben loppt off. Aulder trees in there and chard coal berners in amongst them working ther harts.

The entire book is written in this dialect, and it can be pretty tricky to get through; you can’t scan it as you might a book written in a contemporary dialect, taking information from the shape of the words to speed up the reading process — you have to vocalise it in a rural accent otherwise a lot of the meaning gets lost.

And that’s what happened to me the last time I tried reading this; I made it about halfway through, and realised I didn’t have a clue what was going on. So I tried back-tracking a bit…and still didn’t know. So I stopped — the seminar where we discussed the text had been and gone and I had other things to read, but I promised myself I’d keep the book and return to it one day.

So I’ve started again, and so far it’s going ok. It helps knowing that I don’t have a looming deadline to complete the book, and that I can take as much time as I want on it, and when you get into it and get used to Riddley’s way of writing it’s very enjoyable — you just have to pay close attention to it.

Just as enjoyable as the story is the use of language itself, and the utterly believable way in which our own traditions and titles have survived — two figures of authority are referred to as ‘Pry Mincer’ and ‘Wes Mincer’ — and there’s even a post-apocalyptic map of the area provided with place names like ‘Cambry’ (Canterbury), ‘Fork Stoan’ (Folkestone) and ‘Monkeys Whoar Town’ (Monks Horton).

I will get through it this time, because it’s quite clearly a book that needs to be read. I’ll let you know how it goes.