by Andrew Drummond. Edinburgh: Polygon, 2006. ISBN 1 904598 67 6.
Buy: amazon.com / amazon.co.uk
In 1891 Volapük was twelve years old; there had already been three international conventions, the third of which used Volapük exclusively. It seemed to have a huge head start over any other constructed international language that might come along, with its thousands of speakers and hundreds of books and periodicals. But Esperanto, just four years after Zamenhof's first publication, was acquiring new speakers at a surprising rate, many of them former proponents of Volapük. Solresol, the musical language, still had a few adherents here and there, and dozens of other short-lived proposals for a universal or international language were being published and promoted for a short time. Which, if any, of these languages would prevail?
Andrew Drummond's second novel is set during this suspenseful and exciting time for the international language movement, and focuses on the Edinburgh Society for the Propagation of a Universal Language: more particularly on two of its most influential members, Gemmell Hunter Ibidem Justice, travelling church-organ repairman and Volapük teacher, and his former comrade, now bitter enemy, Dr. Henry Bosman, physician and Esperantist. The rank and file of the Society have many of them their own preferences — for Solresol or Nal Bino, for Leibnitz's system of prime numbers, for a revival of Latin, Greek or Hebrew, or the simple promotion of English; but the real contest is between Mr. Justice and Dr. Bosman, as to whether the Society at its next annual meeting will definitively endorse Volapük or Esperanto.
The story is told primarily (except for a preface by a Dr. Charles Cordiner, phrenologist, who explains how he found the following papers and arranged for their publication) from the hilariously opinionated and unreliable viewpoint of Mr. Justice. We first meet him as he is travelling through the northeast of Scotland, repairing church organs. One night as he leaves a church in Cromarty after a long day's repair work, he meets a mysterious old man in the church graveyard; a man who, though he has never heard of Volapük, is no stranger to universal languages. Mr. Justice and Sir Thomas agree to travel together and assist one another, on terms which Mr. Justice is not inclined to explain to the reader. Sir Thomas proves a persuasive and powerful teacher's assistant as Mr. Justice endeavors to teach the rudiments of Volapük to the Self-Betterment League of Peterhead, the Didactic Society of Newburgh Linoleum Workers, the Workers Improvement Association in Dysart, and other such local societies. But in spite of his enthusiasm and talent for Volapük, Sir Thomas has invented a universal language of his own, and steadily maintains its superiority.
Who or what is Sir Thomas? What was he doing in the Cromarty graveyard? Can we credit his claim to be an old schoolfellow of George Dalgarno? All these questions are eventually answered for the reader who hasn't figured out the answers on his own. But what about the cloak, scimitar and helmet that Sir Thomas loans to Mr. Justice for use in inducing difficult pupils to apply themselves more assiduously to the study of Volapük, or persuade wavering members of the Society to support Volapük rather than Esperanto? Each time Mr. Justice dons the helmet, it affects his view of the world more strangely than before. Can Mr. Justice trust Sir Thomas? Can the reader trust Mr. Justice? (Apparently not, although he lets slip some clues to things he is unwilling to speak about directly.)
The title may lead some booksellers to shelve the book as a language textbook rather than a historical fantasy novel; in fact this would not be entirely wrong, as the novel contains nineteen lessons in Volapük, mainly adapted from Charles E. Sprague's 1888 primer (also titled Hand-book of Volapük). The lessons (most if not all of them) are integrated smoothly into the narrative, as Mr. Justice teaches his pupils and travelling companions about the language; many of the example sentences and exercises for translation are adapted to be relevant to the situation in the novel at a given point, and are generally as funny as the rest of the story; which is to say, very funny indeed. Drummond is not quite on a level with P.G. Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett in his ability to keep you laughing, but he comes pretty close at times.
The novel touches on other issues of language politics — sexism in language, for instance, in an amusing three-way debate between Mr. Justice, Dr. Bosman, and their landlady's daughter; or nationalistic suppression of minority languages like Gaelic, and whether a common language would make this even worse; i.e., whether a universal language, or an international language, is what is really wanted. Besides all this, there is a contest to train two parrots to speak Esperanto and Volapük, the Decennial Census and a number of fraudulent census forms, a dirigible with a broken steering mechanism, and a mechanical translation engine. What more could you ask for?
Everything between the covers except the copyright page adds to the historical verisimilitude; there are nifty pages of advertising for real and fake 19th-century books and other products and services at the back of the book, for instance.
A Hand-book Of Volapük may not be available in bookstores outside of the UK, but it's available from various independent book dealers through Amazon.com, and the Esperanto League for North America's book service stocks it.
[This review first appeared in a slightly different form in Esperanto USA, 2006/3-4.]
I interviewed Andrew Drummond by email in Fall 2006.
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Last update January 2008
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