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Forgotten author No 44: Luis van Rooten

Once again the shops are flooded with books based on TV shows, war-time hobbies and compendia of schoolboy knowledge played for ironic laughs. Who would have thought there was money to be made from clipping children's pastimes out of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia? Christmas wasn't always a cue to make money from old rope, though. In the past, there have been some inspired comic volumes, and it's a pleasure to see that Luis Ricardo Carlos Fernand d'Antin y Zuloaga van Rooten's masterpiece is back in bookstores this December.

Who, you ask? Van Rooten was a popular multilingual actor, born in 1906 in Mexico, whose father worked for the American Embassy and was assassinated in a railway compartment because "he knew too much". His son trained as an architect, then moved to Hollywood to become a radio announcer. Because he had a velvety accent and looked a bit swarthy, he began to land Mephistophelian movie roles, playing Heinrich Himmler at both ends of his career, and appearing as a villain opposite everyone from Kirk Douglas to Edward G Robinson. He voiced leading roles in Disney's Cinderella, and was also a skilled designer, horticulturalist and artist before his interest in language turned him to writing.

His sophisticated humour books include Van Rooten's Book of Improbable Saints, but he should be remembered for creating a slim volume in 1967 that has become a perennial classic: the unique trick book Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames: The d'Antin Manuscript. To the untutored eye, it appears to be a dry annotated volume of obscure French poetry, complete with medieval woodcuts. The best way to give it to someone is not to tell them anything about it, and wait for the penny to drop. For this is a rare example of homophonic translation, a literary device that renders a text in one language into its pronunciation in another, with an entirely different meaning. Opening the pages to one poem we find:

"Un petit d'un petit

S'étonne aux Halles

Un petit d'un petit

Ah! degrés te fallent"

Because of course, the book's phonetic title is "Mother Goose Rhymes", and those four lines introduce us to Humpty Dumpty. Van Rooten then annotates the passage to explain the new meaning, thus rendering the translation into twisted, hilarious gibberish. Remember to take the wraparound cover off if you buy it, as the latest edition stupidly gives the game away on the front.