On February the 4th 1925 the Anglo-American author Russell Hoban was born. His most revered novel was published in 1980. “Riddley Walker” is a post apocalyptic tale set in rural Kent. The protagonist, the aforementioned Walker tells the story of a community struggling in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
Although the setting is in the future the devastation wrought from the war has plunged the people back into Iron Age civilisation. Riddley Walker is on a quest to salvage meaning from the ruins. His primitive style of reasoning and speech is a form of demotic rage.
This style of demotic rage is often utilised by other authors to convey the inner frustrations of characters who are trapped by fate and circumstance. The leitmotif in Hoban`s novel is the legend of St. Eustace. In the legend a huntsman follows a solitary deer into the forest. He then witnesses a vision of the Cross between the antlers of the deer. It is a commandment from God to become a Christian. He obeys the command and is baptised as Eustace. However God tests his faith through a series of unfortunate events, including the disappearance of his beloved sons, who he believes have been killed. When his sons re-enter his life unharmed, the reigning Emperor suggests that he make a Pagan sacrifice. When Eustace refuses he is thrown into a den of lions but the lions do not touch him. Then he is placed in a brazen bull but miraculously after his demise his body remains intact as if the fires had never been lit.
Walker`s life is a trial, but there is a kind of beauty that emerges from his lonely pilgrimage. His journey along the dwellings of Kent is especially poignant. Canterbury is the focal point of English Christendom and by implication English civilisation. The Kent coastline is significant in our collective consciousness as English people, most notably the seemingly impregnable fortress of the white cliffs of Dover. However on the north coast of Kent there is a haunting reminder of our darker history.
(Picture is of Deadman`s Island, Kent).
Deadman`s island is a wilderness only populated by birds, but it is also a place of grim discovery. Human remains have been found, believed to belong to people who died on prison ships that were bound for Australia. These convicts met a grisly and untimely end, and their haunting presence washed up on the coast is yet another reminder of how circumstance and fate determine an individual`s life and death. It is a theme which seems pertinent today as we grapple with the coronavirus.