Pilgermann


My most recent read was suggested by friends from the wonderful h2g2 site and is Pilgermann by Russell Hoban, author of my favourite book, Riddley Walker.  My brain is still whirling around trying to absorb this absolutely fascinating tale – Hoban certainly doesn’t write beach reads or airport novels!

The book concerns a wandering Jew, who finds himself in Antioch during the Crusades, and is about all sorts of things.  The search for order and meaning, the nature of God, the pattern of history, the dance of death, the weaving of fate.  The title character does little of his own volition, moving through life as fate, or God, or whatever, directs.  As he does so, he gains a strange circle of friends, most of them dead, who challenge his view of himself, the world and his place in things.  In some ways nothing happens, and in some ways everything happens.  There is love, sex, war and death, but the two main characters also spend a lot of time making a large pattern of tiles.  Oddly, this tile pattern is one of the most compelling things in the book, setting the mind spinning just as it causes a change in the culture of Antioch.  Movement and stillness in one thing, an infinity captured in one place.  Be still, my shooting neurons.

I suspect that this is one of those books that will stay with me for a long time, with ideas and images popping into my head at the oddest of moments.  Russell Hoban’s books certainly make me think and keep me intrigued, even when it’s not at all clear what on earth is going on.

There’s one particular image that made me smile so much that I had to share it.  It’s not as deep as most of the parts that struck me, but it’s most appropriate.  It refers to drunken seamen:

Their singing had that peculiar falseness sometimes heard in the choruses of provincial opera companies; it made one lose all confidence in any kind of human effort whatever; it made one doubt that the ship, the anchor, the ocean or indeed the world was real.

I know that sort of singing (though I’ve never been involved with a group that has committed that sort of singing), and it really could have that effect!

This is a simply wonderful book.  Hoban is always worth investing time in, and this is a particularly thought-provoking work.  It has its sprinkles of humour, but it’s not a throwaway novel or a literary snack.  It’s to be savoured slowly.  I will definitely be reading this again in a while, and I’m sure a second reading will reveal yet more treasure within.

    • Asteroid Lil
    • July 16th, 2006

    I am really glad you loved the book! It’s one of the pillars of my collection. I’m quite impressed at how coherently you have managed to review it, too.

    One of my favorite passages is the one where Bembel Rudzuk purchases Pilgermann and the purchase money goes around between seller, buyer and slave. And probably my favorite quote in the book is early on, where Jesus has appeared to Pilgermann (who was looking for someone else!) and tells him, “From now on it’s the straight act and no dressing up.” For me, a Quaker, this quiet statement makes the ground shake.

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