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Past, Present, & Future

Riddley Walker

by Russell Hoban
Summit Books, 220 pp., $12.95

The Flute Player

by D.M. Thomas
Dutton, 192 pp., $8.95

The Country

by David Plante
Atheneum, 159 pp., $9.95

I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

Since Russell Hoban is an American—now settled in London—who has also written books for children, it seems natural enough that Riddley Walker should pick up where Huckleberry Finn leaves off:

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. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on I end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, “Your tern now my tern later.”

The voices are very similar, at once young and knowing, innocent and disillusioned, the voices of survivors fumbling with a language they have never been formally taught.

Hoban, however, has transformed Huck in a minatory, contemporary way, much as William Golding, in Lord of the Flies, rewrote The Swiss Family Robinson. Riddley Walker is Huck Finn after an atomic disaster, mourning his jaunty self, stripped barer than he could ever have imagined, with no Judge Thatcher or Aunt Sally waiting in the wings to rescue him. He is also a creature of a distant and desolate future, though just how distant he himself does not know. The story he tells takes place at least two and a half millennia from now in the year 2347 OC, “which means Our Count.” When OC began is not certain. The date 1997 has been found cut into stone and in some unspecified year after that came Bad Time, the nuclear holocaust which poisoned the land and “made a hoal in what they callit the O Zoan”:

Then every thing gone black. Nothing only nite for years on end. Playgs kilt people off and naminals nor there wernt nothing growit in the groun. Man and woman starveling in the blackness looking for the dog to eat it and the dog out looking to eat them the same. Finely there come day agen then nite and day regler but never like it ben befor. Day beartht crookit out of crookit nite and sickness in them boath.

It was years before the survivors were organized enough to begin counting again. But dates no longer matter; they are known only to the men from “the Mincery”; Riddley and his like reckon by moons, which are adequate enough when full manhood begins at twelve and few people survive their thirties.

Since Bad Time they have evolved only as far as the Iron Age. They live in fenced settlements, farming in a primitive way, foraging, digging in the muck for fragments of pre-holocaust metal, under orders from men from “the Mincery.” Off in the woods are the “chard coal berners” who pursue their mystery in isolation, and hidden away in forbidden areas are the “Eusa folk,” a tribe of deformed monsters descended from the original nuclear victims and made to interbreed to preserve the last scattered imprints of a now vanished science:

Faces like bad dreams. Faces with 3 eyes and no nose. Faces with 1 eye and a snout. Humps on backs and hans growing out of sholders wer the leas of it.

Their leader is ritually beheaded every twelve years, like a sacrificial ruler from The Golden Bough. His title is the “Ardship of Cambry.”

Ardship of Cambry”: Archbishop of Canterbury. Hoban has created his own language for Riddley, as Twain did for Huck and Jim. But instead of dialect and misspelling, Riddley Walker writes down words as he apprehends them: “Fork Stoan” for Folkestone, “Do It Over” for Dover, “Sams Itch” for Sandwich, “Horny Boy” for Herne Bay, “Fathers Ham” for Faversham. What he writes reflects the brute physical world he inhabits. His rotted-down Mummerzet-Cockney resonates with older words, handed down and distorted because no longer understood: “gallack seas,” “nebyul eye”; the medicine man goes “clinnicking and national healfing”; the titles of the two leaders are “Pry Mincer” and “Wes Mincer.” There are also echoes of lost scientific jargon: “programmit” for planned, “what I pirntow from my innermost datter” (what I print out from my innermost data) for what I secretly believe.

Hoban has said Riddley Walker took him five and a half years and went through fourteen drafts. It is easy to see why. The book is an artistic tour de force in every possible way and the language he has invented for it reflects with extraordinary precision both the narrator’s understanding and the desolate landscape he moves through: contaminated ruins, bleak encampments and marauding packs of killer dogs where there was once the fertile, cozy, affluent county of Kent, “the garden of England.”

The basic plot of the novel concerns the rediscovery of gunpowder. A dead sailor is washed ashore carrying two bags of mysterious “yellerboy stoan.” These turn out to be sulphur, the missing “gready mint” which, when combined with “Saul & Peter” and “chard coal,” produce the “I Littl I,” the first explosion from which nuclear fission, “the I Big I,” may eventually emerge. But at some point during the fourteen rewrites Hoban seems to have become bored with a simple story and gone, instead, after the harder artistic choices implicit in the language and world and sesibility he has created.

He has said the book was sparked off by a fifteenth-century wall painting in Canterbury cathedral, The Legend of St. Eustace, in one section of which the saint kneels before “a stag, between whose antlers appears, on a cross of radiant light, the figure of the crucified Saviour.” By Riddley’s time the painting has gone, like the wall it adorned, but the description remains, written down in what is, for him, barely decipherable twentieth-century English. It is one of the few written fragments surviving from before the Bad Time and over the centuries it has been combined with garbled memories of the atom bomb. In their myth, the radiant image of Christ becomes “the Littl Shyning Man the Addom,” torn in two by Eusa, who then must suffer for his crime down the ages. And will continue to suffer until he gets his “head back”—that is, until both he and the “Littl Shyning Man” are whole again.

Riddley’s discovery is that redemption will not come through “clevverness”—reinventing gunpowder—but through getting back in touch with the secret resources of the mind, “the 1st knowing” which humans once shared with the animals:

The man and the woman seen the fire shyning in the dogs eyes. The man throwit meat to the dog and the dog come in to them by the fire. Brung its eyes in out of the nite then they all lookit at the nite to gether. The man and the woman seen the nite in the dogs eyes and thats when they got the 1st knowing of it. They knowit the nite the same as the dog knowit.

The book ends with Riddley setting out with a little band of followers to preach this gospel of “1st knowing” through the riddles of a Punch and Judy show.

Russell Hoban has transformed what might have been just another fantasy of the future into a novel of exceptional depth and originality. He has created a hero who, deprived of all other references, reads the world through his instincts, his imagination, his unconscious, without losing touch with his own reality or becoming either more or less than he is: a twelve-year-old who has become a man and is fighting to maintain his clarity and independence in a devastated land. He is also an orphan haunted by an unspecified sense of grief; the Iron Age he lives in is made even more desolate by the vague memory of what has been lost and will never be recovered, a civilization that had “boats in the air and picters on the wind.” He survives by looking at what is in front of him and seeing it as though for the first time:

Looking at that black leaders eyes they myndit me of gulls eyes. Eyes so fearce they cudnt even be sorry for the naminal they wer in. Like a gull I seen I time with a broakin wing and Dad kilt it. Them yeller eyes staret scareless to the las. They jus happent to be in the gull but they dint care nothing for it.

Again and again, Hoban transforms Riddley’s broken dialect into prose which reflects every tremor of his fierce and unanswerable world. It is an extraordinary achievement, comparable, in its way, to Huckleberry Finn itself.

The Flute Player was D.M. Thomas’s first novel and, like most first novels, it sank unnoticed when it appeared in 1979; his publishers have now refloated it in the wake of his deservedly praised The White Hotel. Where Russell Hoban writes about how to apprehend the world without civilizing instruments—art, science, and what Lionel Trilling called “manners”—Thomas’s subject is how to keep art and science and manners going in another kind of devastation. The book is set, more or less, in Russia during the 1920s and 1930s and is dedicated “To the memory of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetaeva.” Thomas has saturated himself in their lives and their works (he has published three volumes of translations of Akhmatova’s poetry), and also in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s marvelous chronicle of the period. Out of all this he has written a fable about art in totalitarian society.

Like most fables, The Flute Player is a simple story told in a deliberately simple style, with a central figure and a supporting cast of puppets: the poet, the poetess, the painter, the sculptor, the director, the officer, the janitor. They are types, not individuals, and the few who are given names get them late, as an afterthought, only if they reappear often enough in the life of the heroine, Elena. She herself is Candide reincarnated as a cross between Nadezhda Mandelstam and Simone Signoret. She suffers without complaint every possible indignity and survives them all patiently, almost disinterestedly, as though survival itself were another cross to be borne, a natural process in an unnatural world. Thomas embodies in her all the womanly virtues: acceptance, generosity, endurance, tenderness. She is the Muse before the women’s movement got at her, and she reappears in all her variety throughout the book in the poems, plays, paintings, and sculptures of her friends.

Her instrument of mercy is sex, which she bestows equally on the just and unjust without expecting anything in return. Out in the Russian streets is chaos and political nightmare: revered leaders change overnight into enemies of the people, victory celebrations turn into house-to-house battles, periods of relative plenty become famines, there are epidemics, round-ups, massacres, terror, rape, and torture. But in her room—or, when times are particularly bad, in the curtained-off corner of her shared room—Elena creates sanity with her body. Making love, even as a prostitute, is her form of decency. Like D.H. Lawrence, Thomas is fascinated by female sexuality and very much in awe of it.

As a stylist, he seems to have progressed by, as it were, complete immersion in other people’s worlds and other people’s writing. His early poems were, for a period, exclusively science fiction, while his most recent book, The White Hotel, is an uncannily accurate recreation not only of Freud’s style—its gossipiness as well as its dignity—but also of Freud’s probing, deductive, tenacious habit of mind. Between these came Thomas’s translations of Akhmatova and then The Flute Player in which he builds up, as though from the inside, the world inhabited by Russia’s greatest twentieth-century poets. He re-creates as a setting for Elena scenes that have appeared in Russian poems: she queues outside the prison, for instance, with the stricken women who inspired Akhmatova’s great “Requiem.” He also has had the brilliant idea of using lines by famous poets—from, alphabetically, Akhmadulina to Yeats—whenever he quotes from the work of the poets in his story; and the lines, even the most well known, flow naturally into the text.

But in other ways the prose of this first novel is far less assured than that of The White Hotel. The style Thomas has adopted is at times not so much simple as willfully oversimplified, as though he were telling a fairy story to grown-up children:

After they’d had their meal she gave the boy a good scrub in a hot bath, then ran it again for Michael. She turned out for him an old suit of her husband’s, and said she would buy the boy a nice new suit in the morning. She tucked him in bed, and then sat with Michael in the lounge, sipping brandy. He mixed tender looks, unable to get over how beautiful she still was, with flashes of bitterness. It had shocked him when she wrote to say she was back with her husband.

To my ear, this faux-naïf, happily-ever-after manner jars with the fraught world of the book and ends by making it sentimental. In real life, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova may have triumphed over their persecutors, but they never forgave them, and their bitterness was not noticeably diminished by old age.

The Flute Player is most interesting in hindsight, as a signpost, a statement of intent. It has almost nothing in common with most fiction coming out of Britain these days: it is not obsessed with class distinctions, not afraid of expressing feelings, not beaten down by domesticity. It is, instead, an attempt to write a European novel of ideas—about poetic creation, about art and politics—and in that sense, at least, it prepares the way for Thomas’s fascinating second novel.

The greatest difficulty, says Daniel, the narrator of David Plante’s new book, is “to write, not about what I feel and think, but what someone else does.” The whole of The Country is an expression of that struggle with the silent undertow of other people’s emotions. Inevitably perhaps, since its subject is the numbing grief grown children feel as they watch their parents descend into helplessness and death.

There is almost no plot. Daniel returns three times from his self-imposed exile in London to the family home in Providence, Rhode Island. On the first visit he finds his mother querulous and almost blind, his father beleaguered, depressed, but still a powerful presence. On the next visit the father’s grip has loosened and he has begun to slide; Daniel tries to chivvy him back to life by forcing him to finish a clumsy piece of carpentry. His last visit is to bury his father and console his mother, although she seems curiously revivified, freed at last from a difficult marriage. In between, there is a flashback to an abortive reunion of Daniel, his parents, and six brothers at the family’s country cottage; the electricity fails, the parents return precipitately to town, the electricity comes back on.

Family life, Plante seems to imply, is always like that: a mixture of strangeness, separateness, and perverse bad timing. The strangeness is intensified by the family inheritance. Daniel’s grandfather was a French-speaking Canadian, his grandmother a Blackfoot Indian; as Daniel’s father’s wits fail, he rejoins his alien ancestors, lapsing back into the old provincial French dialect. The book ends with Daniel walking in a wood by a frozen lake near the cottage, the spirits of his father and his American Indian forebears moving blindly with him in the falling snow.

The tone of the novel itself is hushed as snow. It reads like an act of mourning and extirpation for a sin that is never specified; perhaps it is nothing more than the guilt of having left home and made a separate life. Plante achieves this muted, stricken effect by a curious, step-by-step prose, like a blind man in unfamiliar territory, touching things as he goes:

Outside, Philip shouted. Albert ran off. My father stopped chiselling the face to look up. Jenny, limping a little, came supported by Philip and Albert, Richard closely following. She was laughing and saying, “But I’ll be all right, I am all right.” My mother, still, faced Jenny as she came into the house. My father, the last in, went to my mother.

It is like watching a whole movie in slow motion: discreet movements, each frozen and complete in itself, and a slightly distorted soundtrack, full of Chekhovian gaps and silences through which the characters mutely hint at feelings they do not otherwise care to articulate.

Plante lets his prose run only for the brief interludes when Daniel is jerked from his blank grief into hallucination:

I didn’t clearly see but sensed space all about me, light and dark, and the space, light and dark, kept shifting abruptly about, and for moments I didn’t know where I was. It was as if I—in some other place, at some other time—had thought up everything about me, and everything might quickly change, and where and when I was would be very strange. I imagined I felt the sidewalk move a little under my feet.

These ghostly, disorienting intimations coalesce at the end when Daniel, in the wood, feels his dream space peopled by ancestors. His mourning is complete, the father has come home to roost in the son’s imagination. It is a beautiful close to an odd, hypnotic work which tackles, in a deadpan way, a subject that seems almost beyond the range of the conventional novel: the inarticulateness of family love.

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