A novel without letters

It’s always a pleasure when you stumble upon a book you never heard about that intrigues you almost from the first pages and compels you to get to the last page as quickly as possible.

Being a huge, shameless Potterhead, the first time I was up all night reading was when I found under the Christmas tree three amazing books – when Harry Potter wasn’t a global phenomenon yet and people weren’t queuing outside of their favourite bookstore to get the latest book of the series. I was twelve years old, and I was sorely disappointed when I realized that no owl would ever bring a letter from Hogwarts for me, and that I would have to stick to my dull high school.

A novel without letters. With a subtitle like that, this book screams to be read – and if you’re one of those readers who like to flip through the pages to read the very last sentence before beginning a novel, well brace yourself, because Ella Minnow Pea has a very interesting surprise toward the end, that doesn’t come that much as a surprise if you start from the beginning, as everyone usually does.

The original subtitle used for the first edition is, however, more menacing and appropriate at the same time: a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable, that is a story in letters that looses more and more letters of the alphabet as the plot progresses. In the beginning, there was a pangram,  the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. This sentence, crafted using all the 26 letters of the alphabet with minimum repetitions, was the gift of Nevin Nollop, a honored citizen of the country of Nollop, a utopian community dedicated to the study and practice of liberal arts and scholarship where language is “elevated to a national art form”.

The premise of the story might be utopian, especially when I think of all the doomed futures I got used to with the likes of Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury and P.D. James The Children of Men, but it  becomes strickingly dystopian when one of the letters of Nollop’s pangram comes crushing down from the monument where the phrase was immortalized. No big deal, everyone thinks, let’s just glue the fragments back together and put the tile with the letter back to its place.  The High Council, however, swiftly assumes that the fall of the Z must be a sign from Nollop himself, a sign that a letter discarded from his monument must be equally discarded from both spoken and written word by all Nollopians.

As the story goes on, more letters fall, more people are affected by the government’s ban, a government that is quickly verging towards nothing less than a tyranny, more and more we become aware of how precious freedom of speech is and how obtuse the Council’s claim is. What if Nollop wants to draw the attention on those letters, so that we use them more? What if it’s just that the glue holding the tiles in place is just slowly disintegrating?

One of the themes developed in the novel that stroke me most was perhaps the Counncil’s way of twisting truth to their own advantage, explaining a mere physical event like the erosion of the glue as, again, a sign of Nollop’s will – try and get into a similar discussion with some priests or orthodox catholics (or any other religion, for that matter), and you’ll get almost the same answer “God’s will”. Only when and if it is convenient, of course. Why only men are allowed to say mass? God’s Will. Why did a tsunami, an earthquake or an hurricane level a whole city? Oh, it must be that they should’ve not built the city there, and Nature wanted its righteous revenge.

Seriously?

Maybe the best answer to the first question was that well, men can say mass, but women have their privileges too that men can never have, like giving birth. Like giving birth. How’s that for a silver lining?

Mark Dunn
Ella Minnow Pea. A Novel Without Letters.
Methuen

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