Monday, 14 October 2013

Acts of Literary Ventriloquism: Ned Kelly and Riddley Walker


Riddley Walker's world is mostly shadowy

Some time ago I started writing a blog post that was to explore why stories – and in particular characters – that I don’t enjoy often stick in my head for so long. Then on a recommendation I read Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, and was utterly seduced in a way I have not been since I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Like Ned Kelly, Riddley has been haunting me ever since, so this is a positive post about the power of voice.

I was recommended this book after I discussed the difficulty of writing – as I am – about a place that doesn’t exist, with a dialect that is not real, but without having to declare my work ‘fantasy’. To my delight, at last night’s Booker Prize shortlist readings,  Jim Crace claimed that despite starting with real pieces of history (such as the enclosures, for his book Harvest) he then makes it all up, historical details, voices and all. Another writer who creates non-real world dialect voices in a place ‘just off the map’ is Jess Richards in her novel Snake Ropes (I’ve written about Jess here).

In Riddley Walker, Hoban creates an ancient-feeling world in a future that hopefully will never exist (two thousand years after a 20th century nuclear holocaust), though as Will Self points out in the introduction, it ‘could be set in the ashes of any civilisation’. The place is intriguing and terrifying, but it is the lens through which we scour this landscape for friend and foe that grips. At first, you might think it would be hard to understand Riddley, let alone share the ache of his thoughts and cheer him on his quest. The first story Riddley tells us, on page two, begins:
“There is the Hart of the Wud in the Eusa Story that were a stag every 1 knows that. There is the hart of the wud meaning the veryes deap of it thats a nother thing.”

Language-wise, things do not get any easier. To read Riddley is to decipher, at first, idiom and culture and his particular way of seeing things, which is different from his contemporaries. As Will Self observes, this slows down your reading and thinking such that you share the ‘sensation of groping in the dark’ which is Riddley’s lot, as he struggles on a quest of understanding.

The voice that Hoban creates is utterly unique. There is an obvious way in which it is astonishing, being an entirely made-up dialect (based roughly on Kentish speech) within a made-up culture, where words and their meanings have been eroded by two thousand years and a lot of myth making. We encounter, for example, the 'Pry Mincer', whose political role is illuminated once you say that name out loud, but who spreads his propaganda via a derivation of a Punch and Judy show. But what also astonished me was the discovery that Hoban was American, only moving to England in 1969. Often the only way to understand Riddley is to speak his words aloud and hear them in a country drawl, then work back from there. This must have been even harder for a writer landing in the UK in adulthood, with no exposure to regional accents.

It was this revelation that made me think of Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang. Here, likewise, the reader is hypnotised by an entirely original, wild voice, and the more I thought about it, the more similar Ned and Riddley seemed to me. Both are on a kind of dual quest, moving through a violent, unforgiving world but at the same time trying to articulate something, to others and to themselves, and their thoughts rendered in a voice that requires the reader to leap almost into another language. This brings with it another way of thinking. I don’t believe I would have sympathised so profoundly with either of them if I had been reading their stories in the third person in standard English prose.

What knocked me off my seat after reading Carey’s novel, though, was the discovery of the Jerilderie Letter, which Carey read before creating Ned’s voice for himself. After falling for Ned myself through Carey’s rendering, to see such a similar voice coming straight from the man himself was a chilling and powerful experience. Of course, Carey fictionalised, effectively extrapolating an entire personality and mode of expression from this document, but reading the original Kelly made the author’s feat seem all the more impressive.

Carey said in interview that ‘the story of Ned Kelly, and the reason Australians still respond to him so passionately, is that he was not brutalised or diminished by his circumstances. Rather, he elevated himself, and inspired a particular people with his courage, wit and decency’. Exactly the same could be said of Riddley. He inspires passion, loyalty and love in a reader because he is trying so hard to decipher what really matters and make sense of the world in a familiar human way, but with a set of intellectual and practical obstacles that make understanding modern life look like a piece of cake.

Both Ned and Riddley write with a compelling urgency about their thoughts despite constant physical and political battles raging around them. I am not sure whether it is this that gives both these characters such humanity. It is a rare thing to feel such magnetism towards a character in fiction, but all the more incredible when the novel requires a glossary.

As a reader I have always enjoyed fiction that makes me work hard, and Riddley Walker certainly excels at that. In that respect it won’t appeal to everybody. As a writer, reading it gave me a welcome reminder that characters with made-up dialects, with homes in no particular space or time, are as interesting and worthwhile as any other kind, if created with conviction and, I think, love. I would hug both Ned and Riddley if I could, but more importantly they fascinate me. It is not just infuriating characters that stick in my mind, after all.

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