Friday, 16 December 2011

Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban, who died earlier this week, was the author of two timeless books, The Mouse and His Child and Riddley Walker. The latter is a post apocalyptic science fiction novel published in 1980, when cold war fears were rising once more. Set in England many centuries after a nuclear war, in the midst of a long and continuing era of barbarism, it is remarkable for its inventive recasting of the English language, shaped as if it had been lost and slowly built up again. This linguistic form is in itself a moving portrayal of an individual, and by extension, of humanity, trying to begin the process of resurrecting a decimated civilisation and culture. Some aspects of the old world persist in almost unaltered form. Riddley watches a Punch puppet show at one point - the most basic of violent entertainments surviving along with the basic urges and impulses it depicts. Only Judy's name has changed, as she mutates into Pooty. Everything begins with the word, which allows for the expression of the finest ideas, but also the most dangerous. In telling his tale, in all its raw directness of thought and expression, Riddley begins to inscribe the human story into recorded history once more, starting the slow ascent from the new and long dark ages. The lengthy, freeform opening sentence probably determines whether or not this is a book whose language you'll be happy to puzzle your way through: 'On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt 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'. I remember going to see a dance piece at The Place in London way back in the 80s which Hoban had written for the stage, and which I think was probably The Carrier Frequency. It involved a lot of splashing about in water, which represented the surface of another post-apocalyptic world, which this time had seemingly been subjected to flooding. Scaffold towers rose from the central pool, up to the platforms of which the dancers sometimes climbed. It was all utterly bewildering, and I had little idea of what was going on. But it was strangely beguiling, nevertheless, working on the imagination of my youthful self in a suggestive, abstract and mesmerisingly associative fashion. I went along on the strength of Hoban's name, having read Riddley Walker after it was included in David Pringle's 1985 critical survey Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (and yes, it is self-evidently a science fiction novel even if it is 'literary'). At my age then, I might have been a little out of my depth for such avant-garde goings on, but it's an experience I still remember - and something entirely other from the sort of things I would normally have gone out to see.

The Mouse and His Child is one of the great children's books of the post war period, telling the tale of a father and son, conjoined clockwork wind-up mice, and their travels through a forbidding and dangerous land. They meet an oddball cast of characters - tramps, rats, crows, kingfishers, elephants and frogs, not all of whom treat them kindly. Hoban's world of anthropomorphic creatures is far from the comforting world of The Wind in the Willows. This is a harsh fable shot through with a sense of mortality (the clockwork must wind down in the end) and a concomitant compassion and awareness of the preciousness of life and the need to grasp moments of joy as they occur. It is simply written yet intensely felt and deeply emotionally affecting, and contains more genuine wisdom than many an adult novel. It's outlook on life, as hard as it can sometimes be, is best summed up by its final line: "'Be happy', said the tramp". It was one of my mother's favourite books. I shall re-read it this Christmas. Peace.

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