Tuesday, Aug 16, 2022

Book Review: Imagine No Vowels

A clever satire that uses humour, wit, irony and sarcasm to draw parallels of patriotism that has been hijacked by jingoism

Roy Phoenix’s Alphabetica
Roy Phoenix’s Alphabetica Shutterstock

Roy Phoenix’s Alphabetica is a celebration of imagination—the magic fuel that ignites creativity. He has dextrously conjured a planet called “Typewriter”, where Letters, Punctuations, Signs and Numerals cohabit in a spirit of “unity in diversity”. The alphabet as a metaphor to narrate his satire on majoritarianism is a stroke of genius. The parallels unfold when the jealous Y criticises the appeasement policy “favouring” the Vowel Minority, denying the Consonants the article “an”. Y further provokes the majority Consonant devotees by reminding them that they gave birth to Alphabetica as the 3,500-year-old Phoenician Consonants. Whereas the Vowels are Greek intruders who later tricked their way to corner an unfair 38 per cent word share of the dictionary. This becomes Y’s “why” for the “Rise of the Consonants” campaign. 

While building Y’s vicious yet charismatic character, Alphabetica takes us on a journey that explores the playbook of the tyrant “Great Dictator”, who ruthlessly eliminated the minority—the human Vowels. Y uses his weapons of fear and plays the victim card to convince Consonants that Vowels will soon bring about their extinction. When Y becomes the Supreme Leader of the Consonant majority, the “Brown Shirts” force the oppressed Vowels to seek exile in Numerica—the neighbouring land of Numbers. This then silences Planet Typewriter with the death of words.  

This cerebral work of fiction draws from the little known etymological facts about the English alphabet, which owes its origins to the Greek and Latin scripts and ancient Phoenician abjads. At one level, Alphabetica is a clever satire that uses humour, wit, irony and sarcasm to draw parallels of patriotism that has been hijacked by jingoism. All the characters are caricatures of Earthlings. There’s E, the hated standup comedian with the maximum word share. The dumb sycophant X, Y’s muscular vigilante. S is the spy who carries the calling card of an investigative journalist. Scholar C is too scared to speak up against tyrant Y. There’s more to laugh about—the silly squabbles, mushy romances and quirky gigs at their favourite “Italics”, the pub where they “ink” their blues away. 

Planet Typewriter has its benefactor too. Interestingly, the Letters call him the “poet”, but for the Numbers, he is the “writer”. One planet, two Gods. His wife is the accidental teacher of Letters who eavesdrops from under the keyboard. A classic case of flawed education that doesn’t allow for interactivity. Perhaps the poet of Alphabetica influences Roy to produce such delectable figures of speech, lipograms, pangrams, logograms, digraphs and ligatures. Then there are the incredible secrets about the 12 lost letters, Y’s Achilles' heel, and the 27th letter of the English alphabet. All this makesAlphabetica a treat for lovers of English literature.  

On another level, Alphabetica is a utopian fantasy. The chapters “Epiphany” and “Oneness” read like parables. Here we discover the “Mahatma” of Planet Typewriter—the humble Ampersand. As the logogram of “&”, this conjunction never divides but only joins. “Oneness” ably establishes the challenges of a coalition Opposition that takes on the unified force of the Consonant majority. Comprising disparate groups of Vowels, Numbers, Punctuations & Signs, the coalition is fraught with problems of one-upmanship. Ampersand persuades them to make the cause the leader, rather than a single representative of a coterie. That reminds us of the Pancha Pandavas, united for Dharma by one Krishna. 

Satire is a complex subject that can be lost on people who can’t draw parallels. Even George Orwell's Animal Farm suffered initial rejections.Alphabetica demands serious reading but rewards generously. Alphabetica is a collector's item waiting to be discovered with the richness of its text and powerful illustrations. Primarily because it empathetically demonstrates that the tyranny of the majority is a problem that we see at every level of our society. Especially for the differently-abled who are defined and disfranchised by the mainstream majority. Roy illustrates this by presenting Q as the less privileged who needs U to be heard.  

Roy has the unique gift of telling the truth without malice. His humour is subversive and has been employed to remind us of our tryst with humanity. Perhaps that compels Alphabetica to end with a positive message of hope and doesn't stop at a dystopian “Imagine No Vowels”. Instead, it forces us to “Imagine all the people sharing all the world”. What a charming way to reinforce our belief in the ancient ethos of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.