Seriously funny guidebook speaks volumes

Sunday Herald, 10 September 2006

Review by Jennie Renton

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The campaign for a universal language may sound a dry subject. Not so in Andrew Drummondís A Handbook of Volapük, a cornucopia of wit, fantasy and idiosyncrasy. Interspersed with lessons in Volapük, their content cunningly tied into the crazy plot, this seriously comic novel is one of a kind.

The joke centres on infighting, treachery and factionalism within the Edinburgh Society For the Promotion Of A Universal Language, satirising the propensity of left-wing groups to commit suicide by schism. The narrator, who rejoices in his name Gemmel Hunter Ibidem Justice, travels all over Victorian-era Scotland mending organs, but his driving passion isVolapük. His pedagogy is not always appreciated - at a class in Dysart, a Volapük learner calls him a "pernickety misery and a heavy-handed doup".

Justice believes that diversity of languages is at the root of social strife and that a universal language would usher in an age of peace and egalitarianism. Much humour is made from the venomous competition between the various universal language groupings. The Leibnitzians are a tiny but ferocious band of dogmatists who express everything numerically, with each prime number "a single philosophical classification or category". They are boozy brawlers to boot, as graphically demonstrated when one of their company asks Justice, who happens to be disguised as a woman, to sit on his "78". Refusal results in a tussle which all but destroys the results of newly collected census.

The most hated of all Justice's opponents is the champion of Esperanto, Dr Henry Bosman. The hilarious climax of their jousting occurs at the society's AGM, at which grave attention is given to voting for the method of voting. Among the contenders are Halomancy (the scattering of salt), Cleromancy (the throw of a dice), and Belomancy (the flight of arrows). Manumancy (the raising of hands) is finally adopted. Present at the meeting is the dessicated embodiment of Sir Thomas Urquhart, 17th century linguist and knight of Cromarty who in real life did invent a universal language. Sir Thomas has accompanied Justice on the journey through the Highlands to Edinburgh, the fact that he has been dead for hundreds of years in no way affecting his success rate when it comes to seduction. He has an astonishing arsenal of invective at his disposal, reserving his most potent volley for Scottish publishers:"Unquiddical posteriophobes and overlickerists to a man". When he takes the floor at the AGM to proselytise for his own language, anarchy results.

The most surreal aspect of the tale is Justice's avenging persona, Cödel Yagöl, which he assumes whenever he dons the cape, metal mask and red leather gloves given to him by Sir Thomas. Armed with a sharp cutlass, he sees everything in black and white, which empowers him to pursue recalcitrant colleagues and force them to recite grammatical rules on pain of death. He and the despised Bosman, a broken man, end up in the relative sanctuary of the lunatic asylum in Mavisbank House near Lasswade. Events gather pace, and a voyage in a hot air balloon takes our heroes to near disaster, where the novel's opening scene, involving a box of mice, a body in a bush and a scattering of oats is finally explained. Pofüdik!