Volapük, by Andrew Drummond

Laughter and lunacy in a vanishing language

Bill Greenwell
Friday 01 September 2006 00:00 BST

Volapük - literally, world-language - is the principal also-ran of invented universal languages. There are, surprisingly, several hundred of them, all seen off by Esperanto, which still has a million speakers. But in the 1880s and 1890s it was a serious rival, and several publications advanced its cause, including Charles E Sprague's Hand-book of Volapük.

Andrew Drummond has plundered Sprague's 1889 book freely and gleefully for this really enjoyable farrago, set in the 1890s in Scotland, as was his excellent first novel, Abridged History. As a wildly comic and surreal satire of every pedantry going, it could scarcely be bettered. Drummond penom buki legudik, if I've mastered the lingo.

And this lingo is daringly on offer, since perhaps a sixth of the novel consists of raw or recycled Sprague. This includes exercises, and my favourite of Sprague's sentences for translation: "I have struck myself with this walking stick".

The idea is that a strange, incomplete account has been found after falling into a Midlothian garden - near our old friend, the Chapel of Rosslyn. A garrulous local professor of phrenology, finding it indecipherable, presents it to us. The account is by a church organ-mender called Justice, a proselytiser for Volapük.

Justice is a Pooterish figure well-suited to verbal scraps with Esperantists and other enemies, including adherents to Solresol (a language dependent on musical notes). From the outset, he has a travelling companion, a lecherous and dipsomaniac ancient, "Sir Thomas", with a cracking case of logorrhoea, and a polysyllabic vocabulary to which a Scottish accent can only add extra spice: erethritic, idoneous, octocystic, pikestafficiously (and that's just page 24).

"'Sir Thomas" is actually the undead Sir Thomas Urquhart, the earliest proponent of a universal language. He supposedly died laughing in 1660 when he heard about the Restoration. Justice teaches his bawdy, barmy companion Volapük in return for taking him to Edinburgh.

The adventures become ever more outrageous - Justice donning a magical helmet and cloak to attack anti-Volapükists, Sir Thomas clutching a box full of breeding mice. But the main theme of this delirious fantasy is the obsessional attraction of systems and procedures, and the zeal of their proponents.

The 1891 census, which required discrimination between lunatics, imbeciles and idiots; systems of proportional representation; parliamentary statutes about madness; Julian, Gregorian and French revolutionary calendars - all of these take a bashing. My favourite is the gentleman who has joined every available Edinburgh society, the better to exercise his expertise in points of order and AGM procedure.

This is a hugely inventive second novel; don't miss its appendices and, as with Abridged History, the closing advertisements. There's only one word for his achievement: Bafö!

Bill Greenwell's 'Impossible Objects' (Cinnamon) has been shortlisted for the Forward poetry prize for best first collection

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