Gerda disappears, but she never goes away

Claude Piron's Gerda Malaperis ("Gerda Vanished") is a rare treat – not because it’s an original Esperanto novel (there are loads of those), but because it's an instructional text that's both cleverly constructed and entertaining in its own right. And I just found out that someone filmed the whole thing!

You even get corny Brazilian music!

Piron's 1983 book is often the next stop for people who've picked up a little Esperanto and want to learn more. It covers all of the grammar and the most common words, introducing them bit by bit of the course of a detective story.

Haven't learned the past tense yet? The opening chapters don't use it - amateur sleuths Linda and Tom notice something odd in their university cafeteria and discuss it while it's still happening. ("He has something in his hand … he's reaching for her cup …") Gerda reminds me of Green Eggs and Ham, which Dr. Seuss wrote when Bennet Cerf bet him he he couldn't write a book using just fifty words, and Ella Minnow Pea, with its letters that disappear from the text as they fall from the town's most famous statue. Gerda's part of a grand tradition of language play that transmutes unnatural constraints into natural prose.

I mentioned that Gerda is funny (and, fittingly, cheesy – Esperantists as a group are good-natured, eager to please, and endearingly uncool). Linda follows a suspicious character to a restaurant and gets distracted by young soldiers throwing plates at each other and coffee cups at the ceiling. A young boy threatens to trap his friend and abandon him in the mountains. (He's not allowed to drive, he says, but he can). And two of the main characters are described as "active, hard-working boys, with a special fondness for the somewhat fearful female students. Perhaps because a fearful young woman is less intimidating than a woman who's never inclined to be afraid: a woman without fear."1 Every time you turn the page there's some new WTFness (a kiodiableaĵo?)

But where might we find this city where school nurses, police officers, and passing children speak Esperanto?

Esperanto's detractors tediously repeat "Esperanto will never replace the natural languages" as if it's some kind of unblockable ninja attack that will force Esperantists to go do something else with their time. The Esperantists, in turn, respond wearily that replacing other languages isn't the point – Esperanto is meant to be a politically neutral, easy-to-learn language that allows people to talk to each other without having to learn an existing language, with all its irregularities and social and political baggage. (Both groups are right.)

So let's think like science fiction fans. (I mean "let's reason about the book based on what's in it and what we know about the real world", not "let's insist that we've discovered the only right way to read this book and flame anyone who disagrees.") Esperanto isn't likely to ever displace a community's existing language. Therefore, we can deduce that many of the characters in Gerda probably speak some other language as well - but they also speak Esperanto fluently enough that it's a natural first choice when talking to strangers.

Perhaps Esperanto is widely taught as a second language in the local schools, and fluency is required for civic employees? That would explain our university-student heroes Bob, Tom, and Linda, and the other university employees and police officers who turn up.

So this is a bilingual city. But maybe we can take this reasoning one step further. If most people in this city spoke exactly two languages - Esperanto and an unspecified natural language - you might expect a lot of them to switch to their native language when talking to someone else who knew it. The habit might also keep a lot of them from ever becoming truly fluent in Esperanto; they'd end up more like the people who take four years of Spanish in high school, and two in college, and still can't put a sentence together. Perhaps the reason no one in Gerda is inclined to drop into some other language is that two - or more - native languages are commonly spoken here, and not everyone's bilingual in both. As a result, everyone is motivated to learn Esperanto - not just because it's a mandatory course in school or required for all the good jobs, but because it's easier to speak to people who don't speak your language by learning Esperanto than it is to learn their native language.

But what about those two kids who speak Esperanto when they're alone together?

For all the popularity of foreign-language flashcards for kids, and after-school French programs, and German CDs for babies, none of these products can teach kids to converse - much less motivate them to try without an adult standing over them. And yet the schoolboys in Gerda get up to all their mischief in Esperanto. They must be picking it up at home - the Esperanto, I mean, not the mischief.

There are indeed native speakers of Esperanto - they're called denaskuloj, and they typically have parents who met at an Esperanto event and speak Esperanto at home. (Sometimes they fall in love without being able to talk to each other in any language except Esperanto.) The kids grow up fluent in both Esperanto and whatever other languages are spoken around them - kids are just sponges when it comes to language learning, at least if they're immersed in them and using them, not just listening to the numbers one through ten on a Xhosa phone app. The unnamed schoolboys in Gerda must be denaskuloj. Maybe they don't have another common language; maybe they do, but they're equally comfortable in Esperanto.

Denaskuloj are somewhat uncommon - no one knows the exact numbers, but there are perhaps a thousand in the whole world. What are the odds of two of them just happening to live in the same school district? (We know the boys aren't brothers, because one boy talks about the other's parents.)

It's not impossible that two couples just happened to set up Esperantist households in a city where so many people speak Esperanto in everyday life ... but isn't it more likely that it happened the other way around?

We've already deduced that not everyone in the area shares a common native language, and that Esperanto is widely used as a second language. We might also conclude that Esperanto became so widespread here a while ago - at a minimum, several years before the two children were born. As a result, when people who speak different native languages fall in love and get married, they naturally speak the language they have in common at home. So their kids grow up immersed in Esperanto and become native speakers.

Clearly we can conclude Gerda is set in an Esperanto utopia, where everyone learns it as a second language and the local native languages are still thriving. (Can a crime story really take place in a utopia? Well, the investigating police do point out that these are amateur criminals, and they don't manage to cause much harm. So perhaps it really is a utopia that's so short of perfection that it feels petty to quibble.)

You can read Gerda Malaperis online for free, and download a professional-quality audiobook, complete with sound effects.

1. "Ambaŭ estas agemaj, laboremaj knaboj, kun speciala ŝato al la iom timemaj studentinoj. Eble ĉar timema junulino estas malpli timinda ol ino neniam ema timi, ol sen-tim-ulino." (back to article)

Written on January 31, 2016