Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Ludmila’s Broken English by DBC PIerre

Set in the near future, Ludmila’s Broken English is the story of Gordon-Marie and Blair (well, ‘Tony’ would have been too obvious) Heath, formerly of Albion House Institution, and of Ludmila Derev’s family from the fictitious Caucasian land of Ublilsk. The Heaths are omphalopagus conjoined twins who at the start of the novel, aged thirty three, are separated and given leave to hit the city. The Derev family come from what can only, and wearily, be described as a “war-torn” country of unrelieved cruelty, bestiality and despair.

Pierre sets himself the task of developing several voices to tell us their eventually intertwining stories. He is less successful in this than he was at giving voice to the first person narrator in Vernon God Little.

Though from the north of England (“eee”, “nowt”, “lasses”, “Champion lad”) the twins sound like cockneys: “Slit me wrists first. Can’t be doing with no grief.” What with this and the fact that they are in a London which is clearly – for them anyway, after thirty odd years of institutionalisation – swinging, I kept expecting a young Mick Jagger to step into the story and say “fab”. This is not a complaint, though. For one thing, my knowledge of transcribed Northern English is limited to Sid the Sexist cartoons from Viz. For another, the twins’ part of the story is the more entertaining, their argumentative speech the livelier:

“‘Anyway, I doubt parasiticide’s a crime. You can probably buy a spray for it at Patel’s’.

‘This is well out of order. We’ve only got each other, I mean to say’.

‘Well, I haven’t only got you. After today I might never have to see you again’.”

While conjoined, Gordon had been “leeching resources from his brother”. Once separated it is Gordon, nicknamed Bunny, who is less capable of dealing with the outside world:

“‘Don’t be daft, we’ll be back next month. Ahh, Albion, verdant cradle-‘

‘I’ll not be back. Make no mistake.’

‘We’re on four weeks’ supervision, Blair. Don’t run away with your bloody self. I’m not even unpacking me bag.’

‘Nice one Bunny, very clever…'”

Blair manages to steer Gordon into ever wilder adentures by means of a new drink which will “refocus the way people leisurise” given them by the sinister American, Truman, of the Vitaxis company, new owners of the privatised NHS. It is the liberating effect of this drink and their recent physical separation that drive the twins into the lives of the Derevs.

Ludmila actually speaks very few words of English in the novel (she only meets the twins towards the very end). At home she and her family speak Ubli, a language with some similarites to English:

“‘Smack your cuckoo!'”

“‘Don’t spray shit at me, Maksimilian. You goose’.”

“‘And kindly excavate your ears’.”

“‘Listen to me,’ said Irina. ‘We haven’t much time, so hold your typical bile’.”

Jonathan Safran Foer and Marina Lewycka – both interviewed on Three Monkeys – have been here before – playing with back-translated and/or broken English.

Foer: “Mother was so proud of me, she said, ‘Alexi-stop-spleening-me! You have made me so proud of you’.” (Everything is Illuminated)

Lewycka: “‘No good meanie oral sex maniac husband’.” (A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian)

The device does throw up the odd decent idiom, like “beetroots might grow up my arse” and even a poetic “a body can’t spare the salt for tears” but it grows tiresome and will strike some readers as patronising. When the English speakers come into contact with the Ubli speakers they hear “snarls”, “sliced streams” of words, a “barrage of hisses”, a “spat mouthful of language”, a “tirade ending with ‘hoh!'”, a “sharp request”, “an ancillary eruption” and, in fairness, a “gentler clutch of sounds” – which ends with the word “English”. Russian (“dark, guttural bubblings like the beginnings of a retch”) sounds little better. How funnily these foreigners talk! Is it after hearing too much Hiberno-English while holed up in Leitrim these last few years Pierre is?

Later on, there is a reference to “soft remarks in foreign languages” but neverthless, the Ublilsk thread of the story at times wanders dangerously deep into Molvanian territory. Molvania, producer of 83% of the world’s beetroot, is a fictitious, post-Soviet country “untouched by modern dentistry” which is the subject of a spoof travel guide. And so, in describing Kuzhnisk, a town in Ublilsk, Pierre uses the words “dung” and “soviet” three times each in just over a page, while the bar in which Ludmila waits for her boyfriend is called “Cafe-Bar Kaustik” and is “named after the famous Volgograd handball team”. That such a team really exists does not make the tone any less sniggering. We learn that Ludmila’s brother, Maksimilian, was “the most talented young propeller-polisher the region had seen in years” and has a get-rich-quick scheme involving blue jeans – sorry, mobile phones. Lubov, a female character with an imbecile-son, drags a sleeve across her moustache and inevitably a tractor plays a large part in the Ublilsk story – though perhaps not as large a part as a seemingly interminable wrangle about some petty corruption involving signing someone else’s vouchers.

Pierre has more success with the near English future of curfews, terrorist attacks and binge drinking. When Bunny tries to ring the emergency services after taking a turn for the worse he finds that “nobody’s there”. His carer explains to him: “it’s all Vitaxis now. You have to dial a new system and use your PIN number.” The NHS has gone the way of their bank: a disembodied voice on a telephone. This and the description of “stout skinheaded young Englishmen … weeping into the camera” because a baggage handlers strike has delayed their package holiday flight sound more authentic than the Ublilsk bar called Leprikonsi (again, a genuine name).

The other main voice in the novel is that of Pierre himself, in the guise of narrator. He deepens the interest in subterranean human fluids shown in Vernon God Little but to less effect. Heathrow’s terminals are “vaginal tributaries” along which the Heath twins are washed along like sperm. Ludmila’s grandmother has an increasingly cheesey smell and “various and growing incontinences”. There are also some rather awkward patches: “One eye curled down like the feeler on a snail” and “Blair uncoiled from the floor and parked a grimace on Bunny’s face, chewing little hisses and spitting them… Bunny’s brow popped up, making his eyeballs hang like boiled eggs in the sacs of his eyelids.” Bunny is not, as far as I can tell, upside down at this point.

The travel guide to Molvania is funny only in small doses and, importantly, it targets not just everybody who lives east of the Oder, but western backpackers and the jaded travel guide writers who cater to them too. Even still it ruffled many feathers. Distancing Ublilsk spatially, temporally and ontologically may save Pierre from the wrath encountered by Sacha Baron Cohen with his Kazakh character Borat but it does not save the book from the dead weight of western, monoglot stereotypes about the East and its languages.

Ludmila’s Broken English is published by Faber & Faber.

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