There hung over the place a kynd of scortchy smel a kynd of stinging scortchy smel and the grey smoak driffing thru the blue smoak of the chard coal harts. Twean lite it wer the 1st dark coming on. Bat lite it wer and dimminy the pink and red stumps glimmering in the coppises like loppt off arms and legs and the rivver hy and hummering. The dogs wer howling nor it wernt like no other howling I ever heard it wer a kynd of wyld hoapless soun it wer a lorn and oansome yoop yaroo it soundit like they wer runnying on ther hynt legs and telling like thin black men and sad. Crying ther yoop yaroo ther sad tel what theyd all ways knowit theywd have to tel agen. [P. 189 Picador Edition, © 1980]
Not simply one of the great post-apocalyptic novels, Riddley Walker is one of the great mythic novels, period. With darkness having long descended on humankind, centuries after a nuclear catastrophe, a twelve year old boy scrabbling in the barren dirt of England's southeast corner awakens to something unexpected. Not hope, far from it. But the sense his life is not as delineated as he and his primitive kind assumed. But I want you to read it, so I won't give much more away. Other than the language itself. This is a tour de force more reminiscent of Tolkien's "sub-creation", in that an entire language has been created... in this case, a base and gutteral language that nevertheless, at its best, possesses a kind of roughshod lyrical charm. It is part fable, part dystopia, equal parts bawdily hilarious and unsettlingly haunting. Or plain haunted, even. Haunted by the dimmest recollection of a past when humans had sufficient "clevverness" to almost destroy themselves.
I have been working on and off on a kind of dark fantasy novel, and this book, this bleak visionary glimpse of one possible future, was a major influence. Why today? Why mention it now?
Because author Russell Hoban died on Tuesday (December 13) and any hope we may have harboured of anything approaching a sequel passed away with him. The only hope is that this breathtaking, near perfect work of art will now break out of its cult status and be recognised as one of the great pieces of 20th Century literature it undoubtedly is.
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