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“Riddley Walker,” a Book for the Ages

“Riddley Walker” is a novel written in 1980 by the British writer Russell Hoban. He wrote several books, and they were well received. Some were stories for younger adults. The novel “The Turtle Diaries” was made into a movie. I don’t think that any of his books prepared people for “Riddley Walker,” which is virtually sui generis, an absolutely brilliant novel which one never forgets.

The book is written in a unique language which Hoban created. It took him seven years to write the book, and the language is certainly a reflection of that. It is a strange and haunting amalgam of an oral language, with the words spelled as someone might hear them; plus evocations of Old and Middle English; plus some kind of computer-speak. The words have various intimations, sometimes humorous, sometimes powerful and incomparable.

I read about it in a book review in the Los Angeles Times, when they had a really good Sunday Book Review Section. I went out and bought it, and had some trouble reading the first few pages, until I started to read it aloud to myself, and then it came together with the sounds of words, and after that I could just read it to myself and understood every line.. If you try it, you will probably have the same experience. Hoban chose the words carefully, they show how the language has developed or devolved as a result of the events recounted by the narrator Riddley Walker, who is a boy of twelve.

I have read the book a few times, but most of what I am writing here is from memory of reading it. The story is told by Riddley Walker, which is his name, and his role. His father and grandfather did what he is doing, he inherited the role after his father died in an accident.

The time Riddley Walker writes in, is in the future. How much later than our time is never specified, and they probably are not counting like we do. It becomes clear that in England, now called “Inland,” where the events take place, the civilization described in their present, has followed by perhaps several hundred years or more, a terrible nuclear war or wars. What is left is a foraging society, which one reviewer thought placed it in a period comparable to the beginning of the Age of Iron in our history.

What the people have, along with the efforts to subsist, is a shared sense of things lost, a world which preceded theirs, where there were “boats in the ayr, and picters on the win.” The “government” of Inland, is a very simple one, it is called “The Mincery.” (a play on Ministry, of course; the novel is full of that kind of serious yet amusing wordplay. I never forget one phrase: the statements which come from them, supposed to be relied upon as such, are called “Trufax from the Mincery.”

The are intimations that the person running things, “Big Man of Inland,” Abel Goodparley, has a desire to somehow drag the land out of the literal and figurative mire. There are plays put on, written or directed by him and his “No. 2,” Ernie Orfing, which are taken to the towns to be seen by the people.

There is a purpose to them, as there was a purpose to the Passion Plays and Morality Plays in England in the 16rh to 17th centuries. The purpose seems to be a kind of propaganda intended to spur the villagers to do something, to try to gain knowledge, make some technological progress, somehow get England moving back to where it once was. To this end,, Abel Goodparley has been ordering the attempts to excavate the many broken and destroyed machines of the Industrial and Information Ages, though no one really understands what is being attempted, until Riddley Walker, with his talent for making “connexions,” starts to see it.

Riddley is termed a “connexion man.” He is to watch the plays, which feature the characters of Eusa, Mr. Clevver; and the Littl Shynin Man the Addom, with the rest of the village, and then use his mind and perhaps a sixth sense, to derive the meaning of it, to convey it to the people, who like those of all historical ages, are hungry to have things interpreted and put together for them.

Riddley Walker tells the narrative story, which takes place in a few weeks, probably, but which also has emanations of a much earlier time. The mythological and historical tale which everyone in this time knows and tries to understand, which is shared by everyone, in a way similar to the knowledge of the Old and New Testament, that even the illiterate citizens of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages once learned, is called The Eusa Story. Who or what is Eusa? The reader will put it together Like virtually everything in the book, it combines various mythologies and possible history, and in an unexpected and revelatory way.

The Eusa Story is meant to explain how the world got to be the way it is. The Bible that we know, can be read as an attempt to explain the human condition, as well as to tell people how they should act, and proselytize the religion which it created. The mystery as to who wrote our Bible, over what period of time; the recurrence of certain numbers; did some of these things, like the flood, actually happen, have stimulated our imaginations. Hoban has daringly created a new mythology in the Eusa Story, which explains the past, and evokes the future, at least to the extent that the connections are made, and may or may not be used as guides.

Here is some of the Eusa Story, as told by Riddley Walker, who knows it virtually by heart. Together with what I have written as an overview, this will give you a sense of the scope and power of this book.

“The Eusa Story

1.When Mr. Clevver was Big Man uv Inland thay had evere thing clevver. Thay had boats in the ayr and picters on the win & evere thing lyk that. Eusa was a noing man vere qwik he cud tern his han to enne thing. He was werkin for Mr. Clevver wen thayr cum enemes aul roun & maykin Warr, Eusa said to Mr. Clevver, now wewl need masheans uv Warr. Wewl nead boats that go on the water and boats that go in the ayr as well & we will nead Berstin Fyre.

2. Mr Clevver sed tu Eusa, Thayr ar tu menne agenst us this tym we mus du bettern that. We keap fytin aul thees Warrs wy doan we just du 1 Big 1. Eusa sed, wayr du I fyn that No.? Wayr du I fyn that 1 Big 1? Mr, Clevver sed, Yu mus fyn the Littl Shynin Man the Addom he runs in the wud.”

There is much more, that will give you the idea of it. The Litll Shynin Man the Addom is split apart The 1 Big 1 is put in barms. Horrible things occur. Eusa is an outcast. He finds The Littl Shynin Man again at some point, but is told by him that what he is seeing, is the meaning of him, not the actuality. He is told that there are many changes that he, Eusa, must go through. Maybe he knew them once, but he says that he has forgotten them. He is told that he must do as many as required, and that this won’t be known until he has gone through all of them.

That is what the Eusa Story leaves them with. A supposed paradise lost; and there is some faint hope of finding it, but it seems virtually impossible. There are intimations of the lost Eden of the Bible, the place which we cannot get back to but yearn for. Hoban of course is well aware of the comparisons, and the making of myths and allegorical explanations. The way he creates a new mythology is utterly brilliant, and I don’t know that any writer has ever done that.

Should Inland follow Goodparley, and try to recreate some part of the lost past? Someone in the story, maybe it is Riddley, says that “counting clevverness is all it were.” That has stayed with me; what has the human race actually produced? Technology, computers, weapons, all based on counting cleverness, not empathic insight or what we would call “humanity,” Riddley ultimately makes a decision about how he will go forward and try to make things better in some small way.

If there is one bit of disappointment with the book that I felt, it was that the last third or so is not as amazing as the earlier parts, though it certainly fills out the story. And it is constructed in a way that everything seems to fit together, which is remarkable, but also externally imposed by the author.

Even so, it is a great work of fiction, and I hope I have done some justice to it in this essay. If you find it interesting, and you don’t want to read the whole book, read the Eusa Story, which you can find online without having to download it. It is amazing, and one can only wish that there were more books and writers who could aspire to and reach such a level. Maybe there are, and I don’t know about them, but this book is to an extraordinary degree both intellectually challenging and emotionally powerful. At such times as these, “Riddley Walker” certainly resonates in my mind, and we would be much better off, if many more people read it, and felt and considered what it is telling us.