I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Set in a remote future in a post-nuclear holocaust England (Inland), Hoban has imagined a humanity regressed to an iron-age, semi-literate state--and invented a language to represent it. Riddley is at once the Huck Finn and the Stephen Dedalus of his culture--rebel, change agent, and artist.
Some may find the invented language that comprises this novel difficult, but I liked it. Having studied just enough linguistics to be dangerous, it has often been one of my pet peeves that fictional people from the far-distant future are able to easily communicate with whoever they choose to. Language just doesn’t work that way—it changes and evolves. If you don’t believe me, try to read Beowulf in its original form—it’s hard to believe that it is English, and that’s only a bit over 1000 years. We use scores of words to describe our reality that people from the 1800s would find incomprehensible.
That said, an author can’t really change the language all that much, or the work becomes as confusing as the original Beowulf is to modern readers. Hence the chowdered and changed English that Riddley Walker is written in. As it is copyrighted in 1980, I am assuming that it was written either long hand, i.e. pen & paper, or on a typewriter. Certainly it would be murder to try to compose it with a word processing program—the text would be a distracting tangle of red and green lines, attempting to herd the author back to standard spellings and forms. And if one reads it aloud (oh yes I did, at least some of the more vexing passages), it really isn’t all that far from contemporary English. But the written form, with its strange spellings, bastardized words, and odd punctuation all work together to slow the reader down to the speed of the people who remain and make it seem more different from 21st century English that it actually is.
It might be an interesting experiment to read this and Burgess’ Clockwork Orange together, despite the fact that Burgess uses just a smattering of slang in comparison with Hoban’s entire novel in dialect. I really enjoyed the language aspects of both novels.
I loved the greeting that Riddley used at the gates to towns: “Trubba not.” It contains overtones of the King James Bible—Let not your heart be troubled—plus a promise that he was not bringing trouble into the community. I also loved that a medieval wall painting was the driving force behind this new society—the first Dark Ages informing the new one. The mish-mash of old religious imagery, nuclear science, previous hierarchies, all of it rather divorced from its original meaning—that’s exactly what could happen centuries after a nuclear bomb blast that reduces civilization right back to the Stone Age. I also found it moving that 2000 years after the bombs dropped, when dogs were more likely to attack people than to help them, the bond between man and dog could still be resurrected, that dogs could still recognize that “first understanding” that they had made with humans probably 2000 years before the war. [Probably not all that surprising, given how dogs and people have evolved together—dogs understand human body language better than chimpanzees do. Dogs readily understand that pointing indicates something to pay attention to, while chimps don’t seem to “get” that gesture.]
I also thought the use of itinerant puppeteers to spread “government” messages was an inspired choice, especially since Punch and Judy shows are still a part of traditional English culture. The contrast of the Eusa shows (the propaganda) and Punch & Pooty (the mutated form of the traditional), plus their ability to inspire community discussion—perfect!