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. 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.