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William Gerhardie:The Polyglots

The Polyglots was mainly written in Austria and was dedicated to Edith Wharton. The main character is Georges Diabologh, like Andrei in Futility, based on Gerhardie himself. Diabologh, like Gerhardie, has been around. Now he meets up with his Aunt Teresa and Uncle Emmanuel in the Far East. He has never met them before. They are not, of course, alone. As with the Bursanov family in Futility, there are assorted hangers-on, relatives, freeloaders, immoral old uncles, insatiable women, Belgian duds, impecunious captains, insane generals, stink-making majors, pyramidon-taking aunts. Gerhardie writes about the mission he (Gerhardie) undertook to Vladivostok under Sir Ronald Knox. Just as the real Gerhardie criticised the mission, so does the author here, though in a much more amusing way, making fun of military protocol, the purpose of the mission, the local populace and much more.

Gerhardie’s approach is not just straightforward satire – though he uses satire to great effect – but, in the Russian tradition, he uses the absurd much more than most English writers of the period would do. Both the names – Diabologh, Major Beastly, Corporal Cripple – and the people are more absurd than caricatures. The portrait of the waiters at the Moderne restaurant – savage but, at the same time, incompetent, but also Georges’ reaction to them (I talked…as though I were Arnold Bennett) are a case in point. This becomes more apparent as they hang on in Harbin, life going on in a seemingly pointless fashion, while Georges becomes more and more embroiled in the activities of Aunt Teresa, Uncle Emmanuel and entourage. Eventually, they ship out but their problems are not solved as the ship breaks down and the assorted hangers-on cause even more problems.

Like his previous novel, this novel, while not entirely plotless, does not depend on its plot. The great achievement of this novel is the assorted collection of characters, seemingly unable to move forward or, for that matter, backward but somehow trapped in their own absurdity. Gerhardie as Diabologh is as absurd as the rest but Gerhardie the not quite invisible narrator is hovering around, sticking his oar in to stir things up. His humour is not English – the pratfall, the Waughian satire – but Russian in influence, though filtered through his Englishness. This is what makes him unique.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Cobden Sanderson