Christmas Trickery

Reading & Writing

Here’s a recent column I wrote for the Independent On Sunday about a Christmas gift for the reader in your life that’s a perennial favourite, is inexpensive, and a bloody good joke. I’ve always owned a copy and have long assumed it was more widely known than it is, so it’s nice to discover there are lots of people who’ve never seen it. Trick Book It’s a pleasure to see that Luis Ricardo Carlos Fernand d’Antin y Zuloaga van Rooten’s unique work back in bookstores this December.
Who, you say? Luis was a popular multilingual actor, born in 1906 in Mexico, whose father worked for the American Embassy and was assassinated in a railway compartment supposedly 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, Rhames: The D’Antin Manuscript’. To the untutored eye it appears to be a dry annotated volume of obscure French poetry, complete with mediaeval 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 to its pronunciation into 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. Luis 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.

7 comments on “Christmas Trickery”

  1. Oh, so that’s where the inspiration for the immortal N’Heures Souris Rames, The Coucy Castle Manuscript translated & annotated by Ormonde de Kay, came from? I had wondered at the time about the dedication “to the memory of Luis d’Antin van Rooten”. In the fullness of time, all mysteries find their solution. Ain’t it grand?

  2. I.A.M. says:

    That is awesome!

  3. Steve says:

    Wow… have the time, the knowledge, and above all the sense of humor to write something like this…..amazing!

    Total silliness, I love it!

  4. Porl says:

    this has freeked me out totally !

    Three days ago, sitting on the back step having a ciggie before the great snows of 2009 came, I had a momentary flashback to a french o level class in 1985, where the girl behind me passed me a note saying “can you understand this?” with the “Un petit d’un petit…” rhyme written on it!
    I was trying for the life of me to recall the rest of it, and lo and behold, Mr Fowler, 3 days later you post this….

  5. Helen Martin says:

    There was a collection of these (not M. d’Antin’s, though) in the school where I was the librarian. They were filed in jokes and riddles, 795 (?), or something if your library uses Dewey Decimal.

  6. Shuku says:

    …I. Want. This. Book.

    Which means I have descended yet another rung down into Collecting Hell. My closet, o my closet space!

  7. Red Remover says:

    Hi there thanks for the article, I wanted to look up your Facebook fan page so I can like it. Will you guys be adding facebook connect anytime soon?

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