Monday, August 22, 2011

Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Many thanks to my bibliophile friend, Philippa, for recommending this delectable little book!

The scene:  The fictional island nation of Nollop, which is somewhere in the Atlantic off the coast of South Carolina, named after Nevin Nollop, author of the famous pangram*, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."  The Nollopians revere their nation's founder and his accomplishment, and an honorary cenotaph stands in the centre of the main town. On the base of the monument, his immortal words are reproduced in tiles. This proves unfortunate, as tiles -- and the grout which holds them -- are notably mortal.  When letters begin to drop off, one by one, linguistic mayhem ensues.

*pangram: A sentence which uses all of the letters in the alphabet.

Besides being an enormously imaginative meditation on language, Ella Minnow Pea is a highly entertaining study of tyranny and extremism. The Nollopian Government, you see, is a ruling council of five members. When the Z drops out of 'lazy', they consult the spirit of Nevin Nollop and conclude that it's his wish that his people cease and desist from using that particular consonant.  It really shouldn't be so bad, thinks Ella, our heroine.  Z isn't such a popular letter, after all.  The council, however, insists that words containing the forbidden letter be banned from either spoken or written use, so the book purge begins. The penalties for slips of the tongue include flogging and banishment. Next, the letter K drops to the ground.  As each tile falls and each letter is banned, the novel proceeds without it.

A school teacher, during an arithmetic lesson, momentarily slips and utters the forbidden word used to describe twelve items. The mother of one of the students reports her error to the council.  The informant mother defends her actions in a letter:

... I sincerely believe, as do several who have joined me for biweekly talk group sessions, that Nollop, as one who put great emphasis upon the word, is now attempting to pry us away from our traditional heavipendence on linguistic orthodoxy. Through this challenge, he hopes to move us away from lexical discourse as we now know it, and toward the day in which we can relate to one another in sweet pureplicity through the taciteries of the heart. Brilliant in life -- now brilliant eternal in his conveyances from beyond!

She is not the only one who grows to perceive Nevin Nollop as a deity.  As their language is deprived of one letter after the next, increasing numbers of Nollopians are flogged and deported, or they emigrate beforehand. When the council members are not busy issuing edicts about the ever shrinking alphabet, they are greedily appropriating abandoned properties. On what grounds?  Divine guidance, of course. Ella grumbles to a friend.
Tom tells me that the state operates now only to relate the next letters to omit. There are no other magisterial assertions. The thug-uglies arrest, thrash -- then expel. The high priests generate their alpha-elisions, then return to their lairs to eat what tasties were put there, while praying to Nollop, paying homage to Nollop, stooping, prostrating, salaaming to Nollop. Ignoring all humanity in their Nollop-apotheosis.

Ella steadfastly remains on the isle of Nollop, writing increasingly stilted letters to one and all as her vocabulary must necessarily contort itself around the more limited alphabet. As the population dwindles commensurately, it becomes ever more clear that it will be Ella's task to save her country and its language.  And, with her mighty pen, she does.

If you love language, you'll relish the whimsy of this book. If you need reminding that fascism often starts as mere eccentricity, you need this book. If you need a retreat from, say, Nordic crime fiction and Russian novels that never end, take a welcome holiday trip to Nollop.

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