Two Novels by Russell Hoban: The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz; and Fremder
a review by Rich Horton
A couple of years ago my book club read Russell Hoban's most famous novel, Riddley Walker, and that nudged me to finally address one of my guilty non-reads -- I've known of Riddley Walker for decades, but had never read it. And when I did, I was extremely impressed. It's a brilliant brilliant novel. I knew also that Hoban had written some other fantastical or SFnal novels, but I didn't immediately jump to buy them. I was finally prodded in that direction by the excellent blogger/reviewer Joachim Boaz, who is an admirer of Hoban's work, and who in fact took his blogger name in part from one of Hoban's novels, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz. Thus prodded, I recently bought copies of that novel; and of his 1996 novel Fremder.
(Joachim Boaz' site, highly recommended, can be found here: Science Fiction Ruminations. Therein he reviews pre-1985 SF, with some persistent themes: among them stories about future media, stories about astronauts (Fremder might qualify, though it's too late for Joachim!), and generation ship stories.)
The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz came out in 1973. It was his first novel for adults -- he had previously been best known for a series of picture books about a badger named Frances, and one longer children's book, The Mouse and His Child. Hoban was born in Pennsylvania in 1925, and e had moved to London in 1969 with his wife and children, expecting the move to be temporary. Instead, he and his wife divorced, she returning to the US with the children, and he stayed in England the rest of his life, remarrying and having three more children. This seems to have spurred a change in focus, as all but a couple of his subsequent books were for adults. He died in 2011.
Hoban is still best-known for Riddley Walker, which is certainly science fiction, set in a post-apocalyptic England. What seems less well remembered is that most of his novels have significant fantastical elements. Only one other one is true science fiction (that is Fremder) but most of the rest range somewhere between magical realism and out and out fantasy. (Turtle Diary, Kleinzeit, and Mr. Rinyo-Clacton's Offer seem perhaps more completely realist, though as I haven't read them I can't say for sure.)
To get back to The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz -- this novel sits somewhere on the magical realism end of the spectrum. Jachin-Boaz is a map seller (and mapmaker) in a town in what seems vaguely mid-to-late 20th Century, vaguely near the Mediterranean, perhaps in something like Israel (Jachin-Boaz is clearly Jewish). He has a teen-aged son, Boaz-Jachin, and a wife; but he is discontented -- going through a midlife crisis, in essence. So one day he just leaves, abandons his wife and son and their shop, takes the remarkably detailed map he had intended as a gift for his son.
The son, Boaz-Jachin, is soon also discontented -- he never wanted to inherit the shop, he has no particular interest in or ability in maps. He has a girlfriend, but even so he decides to try to track down his father, and also the map his father took. At this time he also visits an old museum, of the ancient past, and takes a particular interest in a sculpture/mural/bas relief of a king on a lion hunt. Lions are now extinct, and it comes to seem to him that the king killed the last lion, Boaz-Jachin makes a drawing of the lion. And soon he is on the road again.
Jachin-Boaz, meanwhile, has settled down in a town in a nearby country -- somewhere in Europe, anyway. (One review I read identified it as London -- but to me somewhere in Germany made more sense, especially as there is a line in the book from Jachin-Boaz to his new lover saying something like "Your people killed six million of my people.") He works in a bookshop, and he has a much younger lover. He seems to be rejuvenated (the young lover being key to that, it might seem!) -- but then he starts having visitations from a lion -- a lion that no one else can see. He begins to feed the lion -- but the lion is not tame, and at times claws Jachin-Boaz -- injuries that are hard to explain. Boaz-Jachin fares further afield, even crossing the sea, and has a variety of adventures -- encounters with several women, a couple of sea journeys, one of which ends in shipwreck, all the time trying to find his father, or more than that to work out his relationship with his father.
And that's what the novel is, really -- a story of fathers and sons. The lion -- who is both real and not real -- is important. The women -- Boaz-Jachin's various lovers, Jachin-Boaz's new young lover, and his wife, who is quite bitter -- are treated somewhat casually -- it's a very male centric novel, very male gaze centric really, as well. The climax, of course, involves Boaz-Jachin finally reaching Jachin-Boaz's new home, and Jachin-Boaz having a last encounter with the lion. It's a nice novel, well written -- very much so, different, but it didn't really fully engage me.
Fremder is quite different. It is set mostly in 2052. Fremder Gorn is an astronaut, working what seem routine routes between the several galaxies humans can reach. But then one trip goes terribly wrong -- Fremder's crewmates are all lost, but Fremder is recovered, floating in empty space, without a spacesuit, but somehow alive. Fremder not surprisingly becomes the focus of a concerted effort by the authorities to understand how he could have survived.
His treatment, I might note, involves a lot of sex, first with Caroline Lovecraft (a name chosen with purpose), his doctor at the original treatment centre in space; and later with Katya Mazur, a nurse in a facility in London. In both cases the object is to learn if possible what happened when Fremder's ship "flickered" -- the term uses for going in and out of reality during space flight. But Fremder is resistant to revealing what happened, largely because he doesn't know. The treatment in London is actually facilitated by an AI called Pythia, which takes on a feminine persona.
Throughout all this we are getting hints of Fremder's back story -- he was born from an artificial womb after his mother Helen committed suicide while seven months pregnant. Helen, it turns out, was the leading researcher, along with her brother, on the project that eventually led to the development of the "flicker" drive. Helen's suicidal nature is attributed, to some extent, to her rape and her brother's crippling at the hands of a gang in London, while they were still teens. These gangs are part and parcel of a completely decayed social order on Earth, a persistent part of the background to this story. Fremder was raised in a fairly privileged-seeming orphanage, and became an astronaut.
The central concerns of the story, then, are family, sex, and death, or so it seems to me. The flicker drive seems to suggest, in its flickering, a constant death and rebirth. Fremder's resentment of his mother's abandonment of him before his birth, and of the fact he does not even know who his father is, is central to his character. His sexual relationships -- a bit obsessive on his part -- are perhaps partly an attempt to create a family, or even a substitute mother. All of this seems a bit gothic, really -- and I dare say it is. But Hoban pulls it off. The narrative is consistently involving, and stuffed with references to music, classical and pop alike. And the conclusion has some shocking (but plausible) revelations that really work. It's a striking novel, and quite original. (It also reads, to me, like a product of the '70s (and not in a bad way) instead of the '90s when it actually came out.)
I will undoubtedly continue to make my way through Hoban's oeuvre.