Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary republished as a NYRB Classic
“… we use one another as signposts to the self worth working on. That idea leads back to Russell Hoban’s own pursuit; and the book in which, for most readers, it began. The inexpressible is, if not his big white whale, at least his big green turtle. It’s the secret of which Neaera–the Anita Brookner of children’s writers–dreams in Turtle Diary, only to wake understanding absolutely: “Those who know it have forgotten every part of it. Those who don’t know it remember it completely.” But the secret of what, she asks herself puzzledly. Those who know or don’t know what ? Really she knows full well. The secret is not to write fantasies entitled Gillian Vole’s Jumble Sale, for instance; nor is it to goad a shark for the purposes of photography from inside a metal cage: if you do that, as Neaera says, you “have not really seen him or touched him” because the shark “is to man is what he is to naked man alone-swimming”. We all know that keeping a turtle in an aquarium won’t reveal the secret: but will freeing it, either ? Maybe not. It certainly won’t free us. In Hoban’s tenderest book the inexpressible is something to do with being alive as opposed to being merely conscious … Hoban saw it like this: the great turtles can navigate. They “know how to find something”. They bank and turn, against the current swim 1400 miles, “through all that golden-green water over the dark, over the chill of the deeps and the jaws of the dark.” Can you do anything worse to a creature than prevent it from finding what it can find ? Turtles are alive, and famous for their journeys, while merely conscious human beings trudge around in the hamster wheel of a sore, self-referential discourse.”
–from my review of Hoban’s The Bat Tattoo, Times Literary Supplement, 2002.
A lovely book, so glad it’s back in print. Hoban’s work needs to be so much better known.
“We all know that keeping a turtle in an aquarium won’t reveal the secret: but will freeing it, either ?”
This totally resonates with Koestler’s ‘The Case of the Midwife Toad’, which I’m reading just now.
Can we, as humans, get to know anything without “probing” it, without meddling with it, without disrupting it? From the observer effect in physics to the rearing of spiders in a cage, we, humans, are irremediably prone to messing things up. But isn’t precisely that our most distinctive feature?
But then again, everything just messes with everything else all the time, doesn’t it?
Taking this as a recommendation, I looked over a few reviews and then bought the epub from Kobo. I hadn’t known of Hoban or this book at all. Now, having read it, I’m still “reading” it as I reflect on it writing this which means it’s a book I’ll likely reread a few times yet. Thank you.