Saturday, February 11, 2012

Russell Hoban: The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz

The opening paragraph:

There were no lions any more. There had been lions once. Sometimes in the shimmer 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-colored moon shivered to the silence of a ghost-roar on the rising air.

Russell Hoban is a difficult writer for me to write about. The reason is simple: he's one of my favorite writers and I find it hard to step back from his works and get beyond expressing simple admiration. "Quirky" is an overused adjective when applied to Hoban's works, but I can't find a better one. Many of his novels deal with rather ordinary people in rather ordinary situations, but there's always something a bit strange or odd floating about. This novel is an excellent example.

Jachin-Boaz is a mapmaker, and a good one. He has a map store which is highly respected by those who want or need maps. On the other hand, his domestic situation is less happy. The fire has gone out of his relationship with his wife, and his son, Boaz-Jachin, best described as a lout, considers himself both omniscient and infallible--there are some young ones like that, I've heard. Boaz-Jachin considers himself superior to his parents and when that opinion is threatened, he resorts to insults and sneers.

For example. Jachin-Boaz has, over the years, created a beautiful map, filled with everything he's learned from travelers and explorers. He will leave the map to his son--his legacy. He shows to map to his son and says that it's the result not only of the long years of his experience but also the lives of many others who have contributed to it. Everything possible has been included in the map. When Boaz-Jachin sees the map, however, he can't admit that, so he asks where the lions are, implying that the map is incomplete. Now, lions used to exist long ago but have long since disappeared around there. Boaz-Jachin just can't admit the value of his father's work.

Several months later, Jachin-Boaz leaves on a trip. This is not unusual for he often does this when doing research on maps, but this time he doesn't return. What is there for him to return to--an indifferent wife and a sneering son. He leaves a note: "I have gone to look for a lion." Boaz-Jachin now discovers that one must work for money, and now he is trapped behind the counter of the map store.

Boaz-Jachin decides that he too will find a lion, but he doesn't have to go far to find one. A three-hour bus trip will take him to a small town outside of which are the ruins of an old palace, and on the walls are images of men and lions and chariots. He goes to the ruin and finds:

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.

I think I've seen this somewhere; at least it seems familiar. This is a link to a page with similar hunting scenes that have been found on the walls of palace ruins: http://tinyurl.com7szfe73.

He creates a copy of the scene and then slowly modifies it. Finally all that is left is the lion: the king, the chariot, the arrows, and spears are gone. It is no longer a defeated and dying lion.

Jachin-Boaz meanwhile has found a home in another city. He is living with Gretel, a young woman who is not indifferent to him. There is no sneering son. He now works in a bookstore, where the knowledge he gained in making maps allows him to recommend books of all sorts to the customers. His only regret now, a slight one, but real, is that there were times when his son wanted to help with the maps, but he would never let him. Perhaps . . .

Now, it's Boaz-Jachin who is restless, for it is the young man who should leave home and have adventures, and instead, he is trapped here in the map store while his father is out having Boaz-Jachin's adventures. Since his mother has now found someone to comfort her in her loss, Boaz-Jachin decides to find his father. After all, Jachin-Boaz has the map, and it's his legacy.

Meanwhile, life has become a bit strange for Jachin-Boaz. He is haunted--by a lion. It's a lion that only he can see. Others sometimes glimpse something indistinct, but only he can see the lion. It stalks him as he goes to and from work. He buys meat and throws it to the lion, hoping to appease it, but after quickly downing the bribe, the lion is back after him, and it's getting closer every day. Once his arm is mauled by the lion, and he has to go for medical treatment.

Where does the lion come from and why is it haunting him? Why can't anyone else see it? It could be Boaz-Jachin's lion, the one that his drawing freed from the spears and the arrows. But how could this happen and why is it after him?

The novel is a split narrative, between Jachin-Boaz and Boaz-Jachin, and their encounters with the lion is the link that joins the father and the son. As is frequently found in Hoban's novels, especially his later ones, the people and the situation are relatively mundane, but there's frequently a bit of magic there that releases them from the ordinary. Whatever the outcome of their adventures, they are changed by them. Perhaps that's Hoban's point: there's always magic in life, one just has to see it.

Overall Recommendation: Looking for a short novel that's well-written and a bit quirky--turn to the first page of The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz.


  1. Amateur Reader (Tom),

    Yes,he has written some of the most original novels of the late 20th and early 21st century. He will be missed.