Saturday, December 24, 2016

the last book I read

Pilgermann by Russell Hoban.

There have, regrettably, been quite a few times during human history when it's been tricky and/or downright dangerous to be a Jew. Germany in the last years of the 11th century, for instance. Sure, you can get by, but you have to accept certain constraints on your activities and movements. Certainly if, as the (unnamed) protagonist here does, you decide to take advantage of the opportunity to slip a length of kosher bratwurst to the local tax-collector's wife and than saunter back through the streets in a smug post-coital haze, you may find yourself in trouble. And trouble is certainly what our hero finds, as he's set upon by a mob who lop off his Jewish jewels and leave him to bleed to death.

While lying in the street bleeding (though not, as it turns out, to death) our protagonist cries out to God for deliverance and is rewarded with a vision of Jesus telling him to go (after going home and tidying up a bit) on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Quite the trek from Germany, but, having little to keep him where he is, he sets off. As if the ever-present threat of getting murdered were not enough, he acquires a motley group of travelling companions, of various degrees of actual concrete existence outside his own head: the headless corpse of the tax-collector he cuckolded, the pig who ate his discarded genitals after he was attacked, a strange bony figure called Bruder Pförtner who appears to be a manifestation of Death.

Like a great many pilgrimages to Jerusalem, this one is fated never to reach its destination: captured while hitching a ride on a boat, our hero is sold into slavery to a merchant called Bembel Rudzuk, a man of philosophical bent who is immediately persuaded to grant Pilgermann (the name he's now using for himself, which just means "pilgrim") his freedom. His original quest now derailed somewhat, Pilgermann and Bembel Rudzuk head off to the ancient city of Antioch, where they decide to use a spare piece of land to build an enormous tile pattern with a tower in the middle - the layout of the tiles (featured on the front of my paperback version, if you look closely) is a design thought up by Pilgermann and meant to represent some philosophical concept or other.

This is all well and good, but real life must intervene, and Pilgermann and Bembel Rudzuk find themselves caught up in the siege of Antioch, this being the time of the Crusades. As well as the group of apparitions that accompanied him to Antioch, Pilgermann is now troubled by visitations from what appears to be a harbinger of his own death, more frequently as the crusaders, led by the terrifying Bohemond, draw closer to the gates of the city. It looks like he won't be getting to Jerusalem after all.

This was the novel that Russell Hoban wrote immediately after Riddley Walker, in 1983. It's similar in being an outlier relative to his normal output inasmuch as it's not set in the present day; while Riddley Walker was set a couple of thousand years into some speculatively imagined future, Pilgermann is set 900-odd years in the past. While Riddley Walker was a challenging read because of the bizarre argot in which it was written, Pilgermann is challenging because of the density of some of the more theological passages, and the blurring of fantasy and reality. But what they both have in common, despite the playfulness of some of the prose, is that they're deadly serious, whereas some of Hoban's other books have a whimsical edge to them. I actually think this might be even better than Riddley Walker, despite being pretty gnarly going in some of the more theologico-philosophical passages. I certainly think that the 3-4-year period that saw both books' publication was the pinnacle of Hoban's career, for all that much of the other stuff is charming and challenging in its own way.

That said, while it's fairly obvious what it's about on the surface, i.e. 11th-century Jew gets turned into a eunuch and heads for Jerusalem only to get diverted to Antioch with hilarious and ultimately fatal consequences, if you were to ask: yes, that's what it's about, but, you know, what's it actually about? I'm not sure I'd be able to give you a convincing answer. While the book is suffused with religion, for instance, it's not clear what either the narrator's or the author's views are on the subject. This is no bad thing, as you don't necessarily want to be whacked over the head with a Verdict. Best to just revel in the richness and weirdness of it all and marvel at how lightly Hoban wears his erudition.

Parallels with other books in this series:
  • the entire novel being dictated by the dead spirit of the main protagonist is familiar from The Lovely Bones and The Birthday Boys, though the narrator here is a bit more explicit about his situation;
  • the business with Bruder Pförtner and his undead chums priapically rampaging their way around the place, raping small children and fornicating with pigs is strongly reminiscent of some of the bizarre rapey interludes in The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr. Hoffman.

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