Boxer, Beetle (2)

In the past two days I have read 11 chapters (133 pages) of Ned Beauman's novel Boxer, Beetle. It's a real page-turner, compelling reading, superbly written, and highly absurdist.

Chapter 10 (Autumn 1881), on which I reported in my previous post on this book, is actually a historical digression from the main two plots. incorporates the real history of artificial languages into the fiction. Erasmus Erskine appears to be the grandfather of Philip Erskine, entomologist, eugenicist, Nazi sympathizer. His main occupation is finding and breeding beetles, until he secures the cooperation of gay, nine-toed Jewish Boxer Seth "Sinner" Roach to serve as a guinea pig for a eugenics experiment. This scenario takes place in Britain in the 1930s.

The other main plot takes place in the present, in which Kevin Broom, a collector of Nazi memorabilia, is sucked into a nefarious intrigue involving the sordid past just described.

At the end of chapter 9, Philip Erskine is forced by his father to leave beetles and boxers be for a time in order to complete another project:

"It was time to write the history of Pangaean--the Erskine dynasty's greatest pride, and greatest embarrassment."

So the chapter on artificial languages, though seemingly out of place, is a historical flashback from the 1930s, and pits not only artificial languages against one another, but anti-Semite against Jew.  Erasmus Erskine, creator of Pangaean, wants to abolish adverbs as well as Jews. In 1881, "on the same day that the Jews were driven out of Fluek, the adverbs were driven out of the English language." Meanwhile, far away in Poland, Seth Roach's grandparents prepare to fight off a pogrom.

Erskine, bigoted and obsessed, makes Pangaean so complicated and difficult, that even he can't master his language.

"He was even forced to consider putting the adverbs back in, but concluded that he had left himself no room for them, on the same day in June 1882 that Sinner's grandfather returned with his wife and daughters to Fluek, where they were told by local officials that, according to Alexander III's new Temporary Regulations, no Jews were allowed to settle in the countryside of Russian Poland."

So they left Fluek and ended up in Bialystok (in real life, the birthplace of Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto), where Sinner's father "was born on the same day that Erskine completed the 998-page first draft of the Pangaean Grammar and Lexicon."

Pangaean, of course, never existed, but the real history of the international language movement, with some historical distortions, serves as the backdrop for the unhappy fate of Pangaean. Erskine opposes Esperanto as a Jewish language, as did Hitler later on, but as fate would have it, Hitler ends up banning Pangaean as well as Esperanto.

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