80! - The Booklet of the Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum

On reading Riddley Walker in Hiroshima

For four years straddling the turn of the Millennium I worked at a technical university in the middle of nowhere, east of Hiroshima. The end-ofthe- world atmosphere was caused not so much by its mountainous location, however, but by its dearth of students. Young people are in short supply in rapidly-ageing Japan and I was not alone in having salaried, unsupervised time to burn. It was an odd set-up in other respects. As the sole foreign employee in the institution’s 50-year history, I was put in a dingy office under a sunless building much like Fox Mulder’s den but less snug. It took a very lost or determined person to come knocking at my door.

This was paradise for someone wanting to teach himself how to write novels, and not only because of the uninterrupted solitude. By the end of my first year I’d read the books I’d always intended to read. By the end of the second year I’d worked through the books I’d allowed others to assume I had read even though I hadn’t. By the time my third year came around, I’d begun work on those books which the Universe lets you know it wants you to read by dint of serendipitous references and glimpses.

Since my student days in Canterbury in the late 1980s, Riddley Walker had been ‘revealed’ to me a number of times, and one morning at the beginning of January the librarian telephoned to say a new consignment of books had arrived for me. Here it was, an American edition with Mr Punch on the cover. (Mr Punch’s resemblance to Tengu, a lecherous Japanese folk-figure whose giant nose corresponds to another protruding organ due south, must have caused some amusement for the library staff.)

My reactions to Riddley Walker, I guess, evolved in a similar way to those of most readers. First, bafflement at this hotpot of language where Chaucer, numbers, the bastardised contemporary, future neologisms and orphaned archaisms all stew, bubble and rattle the lid. Second, a realisation that effort expended on understanding this language is being rewarded at an incredible rate of interest. Third, a jigsaw-puzzle addiction as the bigger picture begins to emerge. Fourth, wonderment at the novel’s ambition and ideas. Fifth, a serious deterioration in the quality of my spelling and grammar.

It may be true that the lonelier the stretch of life, the more intensely experienced the novels read in that stretch. Apart from weekends with my girlfriend and emails from friends, most of my companionship during those four years came from what was on my bookshelves. Riddley Walker was more than just a fellow-traveller, however. The book got inside me and, for two or three days, it took over.

Looking back, I think it could do this so well because of who, what and where I was. Riddley Walker’s landscapes were made realer by being a non-native speaker in crowded trains, by whole days gone by without conversing with anyone. Then there was the Hiroshima-ness of Hiroshima. To be in a location that has been the stage for an event that altered history is to have one’s imagination coerced into recreating that event. Hiroshima does this more naggingly than anywhere else I know. This quietish prefecture in the west of Japan may not look much like the English county of Kent, but grievous war-ravaged destruction always looks exactly like grievous warravaged destruction, and so one did illustrate and inform the other. I remember finishing Riddley Walker in the 12th floor coffee shop of a department store just across from Hiroshima Station. When I say goodbye to a beloved book I want everything to be just right, so I’d come back from work early to catch the sunset over the fine view of the city, its delta and wall of mountains. I imagined again the atomic blast and its cloud, but this time I also imagined Riddley Walker and the people of his man-made Stone Age doing the same. For a short time the wall between the world of a book and the world of its reader had a hole blown out of it.

On an artistic note, to a writer contemplating an experiment in language, Riddley Walker has this message: “Look, that Russell Hoban guy made me work, right? Granted, he’s a great writer, but if you stop noncing about, think about the pitfalls properly, identify the ways around them (and there are always ways around) then you can make it happen too.” I owe a more specific debt to Mr Hoban, however. The central section of a novel I wrote called Cloud Atlas contains the narrative of a character called Zachry. This teenager witnesses the last spark of civilization being snuffed out on a far-future Hawaii. Like the characters in the novel’s other time zones, I wanted his narrative to use period speech. For this, I needed a dialect that was the result of decades of linguistic continental drift and which was studded with onomatopoeia and puns. Zachry’s voice is less hard-core and more Pacific than Riddleyspeak, but Mr Hoban’s singular, visionary, ingenious, uncompromising, glorious, angelic and demonic novel sat on my shelf as evidence that what I wanted to do could be done, and as encouragement to keep going until I’d got it right. So, Many Happy Returns and sincerest thanks to Mr Hoban and Riddley Walker, from Zachry Bailey and me.

David Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His second novel, number9dream (2001), was shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize for fiction. In 2003 David Mitchell was named by Granta magazine as one of 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. His novel Cloud Atlas (2004) won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award and the Richard & Judy Book of the Year award, and was shortlisted for other awards including the 2004 Man Booker Prize, Nebula Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award.

This article was written by David Mitchell for the Some-Poasyum booklet and published by The Guardian on 5 February 2005

Further reading:

80 at 80: 80 reasons why we’re celebrating Russell Hoban’s 80th birthday

26. Because we want to help expand the limited reality consensus.

27. You can use words like ‘solipsistic’, ‘tawny’ and ‘palimpsest’ in polite company without embarrassment.

28. To discover the work of artists like Hieronymus Bosch, Thelonious Monk, Caspar David Friedrich and Alberto Giacometti.

29. To discover writers like Oliver Onions and H.P. Lovecraft.

30. To be able to laugh at lines like “I the undesigned” from Kleinzeit.

31. You get to introduce your kids and nephews and nieces and friends’ children to How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen.

32. Reading his books confirms that the Universe is a three-legged horse.

33. He helps you to appreciate the rainy days more than bright sunshiny ones.

34. Auberon Waugh loved his work.

35. He writes about potato pancakes and baking bread.

36. He doesn’t have a moustache.

37. He wrote Deadsy.

38. “I wunt have no other track.”

39. He writes about Shirley Manson and quotes lyrics by Donald Fagen.

40. He knows where the lions are hidden.

41. Will Self says he’s cool. And he’s right.

42. He likes owls and bats and creatures of the night.

43. He makes you dream of Antioch.

44. The Deep Black.

45. The light of preternatural brilliance. 

Chris Bell was born in Wales and lives in New Zealand with Elisa Bowman, designer of the 80! Some-Poasyum booklet and their son Frank, who was born on New Year’s Day 2008. Chris’s fiction has appeared in ‘The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror’; ‘The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror’; and ‘This Is The Summer of Love’. His short stories have been published in ‘Not One of Us’ (US); ‘The Third Alternative’ (UK); and ‘The Heidelberg Review’ (Germany). His first novel, Liquidambar, was a surreal, Chandleresque story inspired by 12 of Edward Hopper’s paintings. He says his latest novel, Songshifting, is the kind of thing George Orwell might have written if he’d grown up with rock and roll music and was at least in part inspired by Russell Hoban’s sci-fi novel Fremder.


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