Sat 19 Aug 2006

A Handbook of Volapük


by Andrew Drummond
Polygon, 320pp, 9.99

A HANDBOOK OF VOLAPÜK. NO, NOT a misprint, but a second mischievous, mixed-up fantasy by Andrew Drummond, whose earlier An Abridged History told the story of the railway-that-never-was from Inverness to Ullapool. Here he is writing about a language that never was, and he follows the format of his earlier book with a curious individual as narrator in a series of adventures through Scotland, meeting extremely odd people, travelling by extremely odd means (the new Tay Bridge, a hot-air balloon) from Cromarty in the north to Edinburgh and the Lothians.

Again, this is set at the end of the 19th century, and just as in the first novel the protagonist combines an unusual trade (as organ tuner to little country kirks whose organs must be in a bad way, if he comes only once in two years) with an obsession with language.

The self-imposed mission of Mr Justice the organ tuner is to spread the knowledge of Volapük and save the world from alternatives, from chaos, from Gaelic ("the dead voice of a pitiful breed in a moribund part of the wider world"). He considers Esperanto to be the devil's alternative to his own rational speech - explained at enormous length, complete with indexes and dictionaries, lots of sly jokes (about the as-yet uninvented mobile phone) and ridiculous words. The words are no more ridiculous perhaps than the inventions of today's ice-cream makers in the US (Häagen-Dazs?) but with an insistent interest in non-Indo-European language. The whole thing is appropriately bound up with an invented body of linguisticians in Edinburgh whose meetings we hear about and whose quarrels rise to a surreal quality, and some bizarre characters (such as Sir Thomas Urquhart) for company.

Just like An Abridged History, though, all this is backed up by credible geography, a good knowledge of railway history and even tramway history for 1891 (the cable-car winding house in Henderson Row in Edinburgh is a nice touch) so once the reader buys the central narrative character, Mr Justice the organ-tuner, his increasingly baffling adventures roll out with a Volapük lesson every few pages to keep the attention sharp. The whole book is a joke: the advertisements at the end are a joke: the translations are a joke. It's a long joke, but on balance it works.

Andrew Drummond is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22 August.

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