Continuing with my exploration of Russell Hoban’s early novels, I arrived at his first, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, published in 1973. Although the novel begins promisingly, there are sections which are, frankly embarrassing. Hoban doesn’t seem to be able to maintain a coherent tone, with the mythical and magical elements sitting uneasily with passages of ‘Carry On’ comedy.
‘There were no more lions any more. There had been lions once. Sometimes in the shimmer of of the heat on the plains the motion of their running still flickered on the dry wind – tawny, great and quickly gone. Sometimes the honey-coloured moon shivered to the silence of a ghost-roar on the rising air.’
That’s the evocative opening paragraph, which has something of Hoban’s DNA as a writer of books for children in it. In the early part of the book we seem to be somewhere unspecified in the Middle East, Iraq perhaps. We’ll explore that Iraq connection later. Jachin-Boaz lives in a dusty town where he owns a shop that sells all kinds of maps: maps to find water, love, money, whatever the heart desires. He has a son, Boaz-Jachin, for whom he’s making him a master-map that will be given to him when he is a man. This map that will contain all the secrets of the other maps combined, so that he will be able to find whatever he wishes to seek.
Jachin-Boaz shows his son the map, a labour of love representing years of his life spent upon it. Rhetorically he asks, ‘What can you seek that this map will not show you how to find?’ ‘A lion?’ asks Boaz-Jachin. Disappointed the father responds: ‘A lion. I don’t think I understand you. I don’t think you’re being serious with me. You know very well there are no lions now.’
But then the father leaves home, abandoning his wife and son and taking the master-map. He leaves a note which reads ‘I have gone to look for a lion.’ In the desert outside the town, there is a palace where the last king is entombed, his lion hunt carved in stone. The son, who has decided to seek his father down and ask for the map, takes a bus to the palace where he makes a powerful connection with the image of the dying lion carved in stone.
‘Carved in the brownish stone was a lion with two arrows in his spine, leaping up at the king’s chariot from behind, biting the tall chariot wheel, dying on the spears of the king and the king’s spearmen. The horses galloped on, the beard of the calm-faced king was carefully curled, the king looked straight out over the back of the chariot, over the lion biting the wheel and dying on his spear. With both front paws the lion clung to the turning wheel that pulled him up on to the spears. His teeth were in the wheel, his muzzle was wrinkled back from his teeth, his brows were drawn together in a frown, his eyes were looking straight out from the shadow of his brows. There was no expression on the king’s face. He was looking over the lion and beyond him.’
Through a simple act magic, the son loosens the spears and sets the lion’s spirit free. Then begins his journey across land and sea to find his father.
‘Why did [my father] never talk to me? Why did he always seem to be talking to a space that I hadn’t moved into? Why was he always holding up an empty suit of clothes for me to jump into? He talked to clothes I never did put on.’
This is the best part of the book; the language is powerful and the ideas – fathers and sons in opposition, the search for an identity in the world – are placed in a non-specific magical-realist landscape. But now the novel becomes part road-movie, as the son on his journey draws ever-closer to the city where his father now lives, and part existential saga, as the father struggles with his lion. These episodes are very uneven and over-extended. The book’s conclusion seems predictable and simplistic.
The description of the lion hunt relief rang a bell for me. A little Internet research quickly provided the answer: Hoban was inspired by the Assyrian relief from the Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, northern Iraq, a section of which is in the British Museum. Dating from around 645 BC, it depicts the triumph of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal over nature. This alabaster panel was part of a series depicting a royal hunt, and it illustrated the violent death of the lion clearly. Struck by one of the king’s arrows, blood gushes from the lion’s mouth.
Russell Hoban confirmed that he was inspired by the relief in a 1992 talk:
I looked at some notes I had about this lion, which I had seen a photo of in a book of Mesopotamian art. This is from a sandstone relief of the lion hunt from the northern palace of King Ashurbanipal of Nineveh. The lion is gripping the wheel of the king’s chariot. This is his fiercely frowning face as the wheel brings him up; he is gripping the wheels of the king’s chariot with his claws as the wheels bring him up to the spears of the king and the king’s huntsmen, so he’s dying in the act of fighting, of attacking the wheels of the king’s chariot. This lion got a pretty good grip on me and I swatted up Mesopotamia and Mesopotamian mythology and Sumerian mythology and interpolated some of my own into it and developed a background from which I expected my lion to come into some kind of story…. I accumulated notes, but nothing happened. That was before I went to London. Then when I got there in 1970, living alone, I picked up the pages. All of the four children of my first marriage were angry at me, and I thought about the anger. The story came to me with just one child. The father leaves the son at home to be the old man while the father tries to be the son going out into the world to become a man.