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5.0 out of 5 stars Universal Incomprehension, 30 Dec. 2013
This review is from: Volapuk (Paperback)
"Then a small band of Leibnitzians suddenly emerged from the shadows at the back of the church, academicians to a man [...] blinking in the unaccustomed light, shouting out anathema and castigating us all for sullying their fond memory of a great Mathematician and Thinker. "Prime numbers are indivisible!" seemed to be their battle cry".

These unseemly goings-on interrupt the funeral, in 1891, of Prof. McInnes, a member of the Edinburgh Society for the Propagation of a Universal Language. Our narrator, Mr Justice, is the General Secretary. The Society, which hopes to achieve "Universal Peace, founded solidly upon Universal Comprehension", is, needless to say, riven with misunderstanding, acrimony and downright aggression, mainly because nobody can agree on what this universal language shall be - Latin, English and several invented tongues all have supporters, but none can carry the day. The cause of Solresol, for instance, is severely hampered by the fact that its only two adherents in the Society, or indeed in the country, are not on speaking terms.

Solresol was real, as are the other universal languages mentioned in the book; there seem to have been a considerable number of universal languages being invented around the last quarter of the 19th century. Two of them were Volapük and Esperanto, whose causes in the society are espoused respectively by Mr Justice and his opponent Dr Bosman. There was also, in the time of the English Civil War, a Sir Thomas Urquhart, who claimed to have invented a universal language, and if you ask what is the relevance of that, I can only say that he is an active character in the novel, despite being some 300 years old. It's that sort of novel.

Sir Thomas's plan for a universal language differs from most in preferring complexity to simplicity. Nineteen genders may be overdoing it, but he points to one of the chief problems of "simplified" language when he asks for a Volapük translation of strumpet, trull, Cyprian, wanton, hussy, slut, cocotte, Delilah and fille-de-joie, to find that Justice can offer only the same phrase for each (meaning, roughly, dishonourable young lady). Volapük, or any language like it, might do well enough for text-speak or office memos, but it has none of the nuance of languages that have evolved naturally. Later in the novel, Miss Smyth, an inhabitant of the lunatic asylum in which quite a few of the main characters are temporarily residing, asks Justice "When did a language ever come in advance of a conqueror? [..] Language, sir, is a means of Rule, an instrument of Power, a weapon of Oppression."

It will be clear by now that this novel is very much concerned with the nature of language, and indeed communication in general - one reason for the fracas at the funeral is that Justice, at the organ, is playing the tune of "O Tannenbaum", but the congregation are hearing the tune of "The Red Flag". There are two striking and game-changing moments when we realise that our narrator, while he hasn't exactly lied to us, has been failing to mention some quite important facts. There are also moments when our author communicates in Volapük, for the novel has a sort of primer running through it, with exercises which, you may be glad to know, have solutions at the back. Though you can perfectly well cheat with these, it's actually possible to follow the primer and read the Volapük phrases en route; as the novel progresses they become more relevant. And funnier, for like his first novel An Abridged History, this is a very funny book. I shall long cherish the scene where the Edinburgh census forms, collected by Mr Justice and accidentally damaged in a brawl with the obstreperous Leibnitzians, are reconstituted by the asylum inmates:

"Mr Oliver, however, was outraged at the scandalous replies that had been given. "What manner of man", he demanded to know, "lives with six children, a wife, his mother, a brother-in-law and two lodgers, in a house which barely has two rooms?" I tried to persuade him that a great many of our citizens lived in such conditions, or worse, and that this form merely described an unpleasant truth. But Oliver, who was possessed of a mis-placed sense of social justice, was having none of it. At the stroke of his pen he gave the family another five good-sized rooms, evicted the lodgers and brought some comfort to the declining years of the house-holder's widowed mother, by resurrecting her late husband."

This notion, that you might be able to make a thing so, simply by writing it, underlies the novel. It has elements of realism, fantasy, politics, the picaresque: in short it's unclassifiable, which is probably why it isn't better known, as it ought to be. Oh, and you could also learn Volapük from it, if you wanted to. By the end, though, you'd probably conclude that this is a fruitless exercise - which is odd when you come to think about it, because though it is clear that the author is encouraging that conclusion, it's also clear that he himself can speak it... But as I said, it's that kind of novel.
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