Book reviews
Sun 27 Aug 2006

Hilarious romp in any language


A Hand-book Of Volapük
Andrew Drummond
Polygon £9.99

VOLAPÜK was a constructed language created in 1880 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a Roman Catholic priest in Baden, Germany. Schleyer felt that God had come to him in a dream and asked him to create a universal human idiom - understandable given God's attitude to Babel, and the confusion of tongues therein. Amazingly enough, Volapük conventions took place all over Europe and by 1889 there were an estimated 283 clubs, 25 periodicals in or about Volapük and 316 textbooks in 25 languages.

Although the scheme came to nothing, the idea of a universal language so well demonstrates the late Victorian endeavour, earnestness and optimism that Andrew Drummond of Edinburgh felt compelled to create a novel about its growth (or lack of it) in Scotland.

A Hand-book Of Volapük concerns the efforts of Mr Gemmel Justice, a fervent campaigner for Volapük, and the many trials he faces - largely at the hands of his arch enemy Mr Bosman, the chain-smoking champion of Esperanto. What follows is an elegant series of wild misadventures, most of which are guided by Drummond's pièce-de-résistance, a four-hundred-year-old Sir Thomas Urquhart, inexplicably alive and constantly randy.

It is difficult to conceive of the ambition Drummond brings to this novel. The book is framed with a traditional mystery, complete with body parts, a swooning maid and a mysterious message. In between come characters both fictional and real with bizarre inventions and "improvements" wielded by Victorian men of the highest scientific purpose.

To top this, the novel comprises a complete manual to Volapük, allowing readers to savour the mania of its narrator, and even read and speak Volapük if they wish. The real commingles with the unreal throughout. The British census of 1891 is debunked and debased; Sherlock Holmes hovers, threatening to enter the novel and resolve its secrets; and occasional references to the (fictional) University of Fraserburgh betray Drummond's learning and sense of humour; such a university was actually permitted in a Royal Charter of 1592, although those who have seen modern Fraserburgh will truly relish the comedy of such an institution.

It is important to mention that above all, A Hand-book Of Volapük is a bloody funny romp around the coast of Scotland, loaded with cross-dressing misadventures in boats, in the air and in the lodging houses and meeting rooms of Edinburgh. The best fun is reserved for the bizarre environs of the Mavisbank Private Lunatic Asylum at Lasswade, where Justice, Bosman and Urquhart disembark for comic capers above and beyond the call of language.

Language is a great subject for Drummond as he is clearly a master of it, so much so that he can spend his time on creating new ways to fool, beguile and wow readers. His touch is deft. In the eyes of the narrator, Esperanto is "a farrago of grammar and vocabulary" whereas Gaelic is "the dead voice of a pitiful breed in a moribund part of the wiser world".

This is a lively book, sparkling with wit and ideas, but it is also no-mean commentary on an era when Scots such as Livingston, Muir and Carnegie were the tip of an iceberg which, beneath the water, held a great deal of sincere and well-meaning silliness.