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Angelica Lost and Found, by Russell Hoban, Bloomsbury RRP£12.99, 256 pages
Russell Hoban, now 85, is a forager after pungent truths in the cleft between reality and fiction. He is also a superb writer of children’s books – although it’s notable that Frances, the heroine of his best-known books for younger readers, is famous for not wanting to go to bed. This is not a problem that Hoban’s adult characters tend to suffer from.
In Angelica Lost and Found, Hoban has taken the story of Angelica from Ariosto’s 16th-century epic poem “Orlando Furioso”, and performed some strange necromancy on it. Angelica is still chained to a rock, a beautiful virgin sacrificed to a foul monster from the depths; and rescue, in the heroic shape of airborne Ruggiero, is still at hand. But Hoban has looked at Girolamo da Carpi’s painting, “Ruggiero Saving Angelica”, one of many images of this frightful yet curiously erotic scene, and noticed something that even Ariosto may never have realised. The girl and the monster are fixated on the man with the upheld sword. But the other beast – Ruggiero’s magical steed – is staring at Angelica. If this is a love story, it may be the hippogriff rather than the hero who is playing Romeo.
Hoban takes this idea and flies away with it, careering from metaphysics to Freudian psychology, via opera and demonic (or, perhaps, hippogriffic) possession in his usual cock-eyed fashion. Volatore, the hippogriff, offloads his rider and heads through the eye of the great raven back to the beginning of the dream that is called reality, whatever that means, which gets him to 2008 and gives him the ability to inhabit human beings who might bring him closer to his Angelica. But, naturally, it’s not that simple.
In Ariosto’s poem, Orlando’s titular madness was a result of his inability to possess Angelica. Volatore doesn’t do much better, although not for want of trying.
Halfway through the book, the focus switches, the hippogriff flutters off and we are left with Angelica’s modern incarnation, a 30-year-old Jewish San Francisco gallery owner. The switch is, strictly speaking, garbled but then Hoban believes there are at least two forms of reality, so anyone in search of a linear narrative probably shouldn’t look to him to provide it. And, while he is not the man to concern himself with modern conundrums, such as men’s eternal fascination with naked, frightened women, the mysteries that do preoccupy him are so wonderfully peculiar it’s hard to mind. Is God just another placebo? How many kinds of reality are there? And if a woman had sex with a hippogriff, what kind of fruit – literal or psychological – might that union bear?
That’s Hoban: a louche writer of 1940s pulp fiction trapped in the laptop of a hyper-intelligent, metaphysically challenged modern Jew. (With rare exceptions, such as his futuristic tour de force, Riddley Walker, Hoban usually manages to shove a hilarious if irrelevant Jewish scene into his books. Here, Volatore’s beloved discovers that there’s nothing like being chained to a rock naked with a monster moving in to make you rediscover the faith of your forefathers.)
Hoban, pen aloft, has ridden in on a hippogriff and whisked the girl out of Ariosto’s reality and into his own; the fact that their destination turns out to be a roiling sea of Jack Daniels from which arise a variety of psychic beasts is probably an accurate reflection of the way things are. Because, however wacky Hoban’s ideas (it’s debatable which of his notions is odder, a policeman who invites would-be suicides to the station for coffee or one who says things like: “If you start smelling mostly like a horse, give me a call”), they are mired in reality of one kind or another: he may be a literary peeping Tom but his eyesight is pretty good. He also possesses a great sense of humour; and as any woman, in any reality, knows, a man who can make a girl laugh will probably get what he’s after – whatever that may be.