Go 4th and 4qate

Today is SA4QE day, or the day on which fans of Russell Hoban select favourite quotes from his books and leave them in public places to ‘spread the word’. I’ve been a participant since the activity started five years ago but I don’t believe I’ve blogged my 4qations before. Here’s what I’ve posted to the Hoban forum The Kraken and what will also be appearing on my page on sa4qe.com at some point in the next few days. Happy birthday Russ!

With a two-week-old baby in the house (just what is it with me and this time of year, eh?), I haven’t had as much time to prepare a 4qation as on previous years, and this has only made my ‘normal work panic’ about choosing a quote from the many thousands of words in Russell Hoban’s many books even worse. However, the problem has happily suggested its own solution. The new arrival, Charlie, has, in the tradition of his Thai side, already been awarded a nickname. His elder brother Joe (born March 2005) being dubbed Squid (Thai: ‘Mg’), we felt something similarly oceanic and possibly Hobanesque was called for, and so Charlie has become Turtle (‘Thou’). Thus I narrowed my search for quotes this year to Hoban’s superb early novel Turtle Diary (tragically out of print at the moment, but some copies are still available from Amazon, and Bloomsbury are promising a reprint at some point). After some searching – punctuated by assorted changes, baths, feeds, plays, tellings-off, naps, and even a bit of attention to my children – I settled on the following three quotes. They’re from chapter 3, narrated by William G., and from adjacent pages, so not strictly separate quotes, but can be read that way.

“There are green turtles whose feeding grounds are along the coast of Brazil, and they swim 1,400 miles to breed and lay their eggs on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, half way to Africa. Ascension Island is only five miles long. Nobody knows how they find it. Two of the turtles at the aquarium are green turtles, a large one and a small one. The sign said: ‘The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup…’ I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that’s a lot of soup walking about.”

I liked this passage firstly because it sets out the turtles’ incredible quest and achievement, which in itself seems to me a metaphor for the human condition – we spend so long working towards something, not always knowing why or how but only knowing we have to do it, and without any guarantee that we’ll succeed or that the turtle-eggs we lay even if we do get there will survive. Secondly I like the way Hoban takes something negative about the turtle experience – the sacrilege of being turned into soup – and makes something both positive and amusing out of it. As a father now for the second time I’ve naturally spent many hours lately contemplating the kind of future I’ll be able to give Charlie, and the kind he’ll have anyway regardless of my influence, so this passage also suggests to me some good advice to him: We’re all our own kinds of soup; be proud of your Charlie soup, and for that matter your London roots, and don’t be put off by the fact that millions of gallons of other-people soup is sloshing around the world at the same time: your variety is unique.

The second passage follows directly on from the last:

“How do the turtles find Ascension Island? There are sharks in the water too. Some of the turtles get eaten by sharks. Do the turtles know about sharks? How do they not think about the sharks when they’re swimming that 1,400 miles? Green turtles must have the kind of mind that doesn’t think about sharks unless a shark is there… I can’t believe they’d swim 1,400 miles thinking about sharks.
“…I think of them swimming through all that golden-green water over the dark, over the chill of the deeps and the jaws of the dark. And I think of the sun over the water, the sun through the water, the eye holding the sun, being held by it with no thought and only the rhythm of the going, the steady wing-strokes of flippers in the water. Then it doesn’t seem hard to believe. It seems the only way to do it, the only way in fact to be: swimming, swimming, the eye held by the sun, no sharks in the mind, nothing in the mind.”

Turtle Diary centres on two people at a crucial point in their lives and confronting their own situations, which, despite being pretty mundane, are nonetheless troubling to them. I can relate to the story and characters partly through being a bit of a worrier myself (and even if I wasn’t, I daresay most parents would admit that having children makes you worry anyway) and this beautifully cadenced passage with its Zen-like idea of ‘swimming, swimming [with] nothing in the mind’ provides me with some reassurance that there is, in fact, a way through, a way forward.

My last selection also follows on directly from the last paragraph, in fact is the final sentence of that paragraph, but I feel deserves separate consideration:

“And when they can’t see the sun, what then? Their vision isn’t good enough for star sights. Do they go by smell, taste, faith?”

I’m not a religious person and I despise the way that some people use religions and ‘faiths’ to mess up the world. Nonetheless I do retain a great deal of respect for people who manage to have faith (in spite, indeed, of the way faith is regularly abused and misused) and put it to good use, and one of those good uses is simply, as Bob Dylan put it, keeping on keeping on. I believe – or I’d like to believe – in a turtle-god, in turtle-faith, something that keeps you going despite the darkness, the sharks, the chances of getting lost.