Esperanto isn’t a common discussion topic, certainly not in the English speaking world. There’s rarely articles and hardly any books about it, so naturally I was excited about the new history of the language, “Bridge of Words” by Esther Schor, which is billed as the first book about the whole history of Esperanto. The book narrates the history of the language, the ideas behind as well as the personal experience of the author who spent years in the Esperanto community.
Hopefully this will generate interest in the language and provide a valuable resource to people who want to learn more about the language. So far, there have been some reviews in leading journals which will introduce the language to many people for the first time. However, these reviews are written by outsiders who know little about Esperanto (so there is a lot of the inevitable ‘Esperanto failed’ nonsense) and in fact the author herself was an outsider before she wrote this book. So I decided to write a review from an insider’s perspective, from the view of a committed Esperantist.
Schor’s book follows the history of the language from its roots to the current day. Interestingly, she pays little attention to the language itself, the structure of Esperanto and its creation is quickly passed through. Thus, if a reader didn’t know what Esperanto was or how it worked, reading this book wouldn’t tell them much. The simplicity and logic of the language is not shown, the absence of irregularities is not explained and the way words are formed is skipped. There is also little on Schor’s experience in learning the language, how she found it, what she liked and didn’t like about the language etc. It’s odd that the language itself is absent from the book about it.
Inevitably, the life of Zamenhof is discussed in great detail. In fact the author has said that the project originally began as a biography of Zamenhof and perhaps she had difficulty throwing away her research. I felt that perhaps too much time was spent here which left less space for the development of the language. This contradicted an important point made by Schor and others, that Esperanto is bigger than its founder. Schor rightfully points out the significance in Zamenhof’s waiving of his rights to the language and passing it into the hands of its users, which makes me wonder why she spent far more time on his life rather than viewing the users and how they used the language.
One area that was certainly over-discussed was Judaism and Zamenhof. Zamenhof said that his Jewishness was important to him and he probably wouldn’t have invented Esperanto if he wasn’t a Jew. It is certainly an interesting area and worthy of discussion, but the author takes it too far. She gets so involved in discussing Judaism that she forgets that this book is supposed to be about Esperanto. I can understand how this happened, Schor is Jewish and a professor of Jewish Studies and perhaps if I wrote a book, I would focus on Ireland and my Irish identity. However, at times the book felt more like a discussion of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th century than a history of Esperanto. Far more space was devoted to Hilelism (remotely related to the language) than crucial points of Esperanto history like the Ido Schism, Nazi persecution, Communist regimes and the neutrality debates.
She also spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing the Esperanto movement in the United States of America. There certainly are some interesting points here such as the hope that Esperanto would be suited to the new multi-ethnic state and the McCarthyite split in the 50s, but this is the only national movement discussed. No word is given of the French, German, Polish, British etc movements, in fact entire continents get less of a mention than the American. This parochialism is uncomfortable from an Esperantist. After all, isn’t the whole point of learning Esperanto is that you can meet people from all over the world? Different people from different cultures whose stories are just as valuable as yours? What’s the point in learning Esperanto if you’re only interested in your own people?
The book can be divided into two sections, those dealing with the history of the language and the personal experiences of the author at Esperanto events. This is a very good idea and shows not only the past of the language, but also that it is still living today. However, the problem with personal accounts is that they are only as good as person telling them. Unfortunately, Schor doesn’t tell an interesting story and didn’t do anything particularly interesting during the events. Some of this is because she’s middle aged and can’t be expected to run wild during the night and get up to crazy antics. But Esperantujo to me is a really fun place where I’ve made lots of friends and it’s disappointing that the book fails to capture this. She speaks to a few people, discusses what they think of Esperanto and that’s about it. Where’s the fun? Where’s the adventure?
One of my first nights in Esperantujo and the moment that convinced me to join the language was dancing and drinking all night during a JoMo concert and having the time of my life. I danced until the sweat was pouring off me and spun a girl dangerously fast around the dancefloor until we both collapsed. Then sitting in the gufujo for a couple hours with people who were strangers but now friends, with that tingle of pride as my broken stuttering began to flow into a comprehensible conversation.
In fact, the etoso of Esperantujo is missing from the book. Schor attended NASK, UK and IJK in Bialystok, Hanoi and Havana between 2009-12 but didn’t describe what they were, let alone capture the atmosphere. A non-Esperantist reading the book still wouldn’t know what happens at Esperanto events or what people actually use the language for. I remember the sense of joy I felt at seeing a human wave of hundreds of Esperantists moving through corridors at the World Congress and partying with scores of young people from dozens of countries at International Youth Congress. The sense of amazement as I sat at a table with half a dozen people from as many countries. The sense of pride as I began to remember words and create conversations, as grammar rules began to click and I felt comfortable in the language.
There is a lot of Esperanto’s history left out. Like most accounts, it heavily focuses on the early, pre-WW1 days and has relatively little to say about the post-WW2 movement. The great challenge for Esperanto – neutrality – is only given brief mention. The trouble that associations had in avoiding provoking totalitarian regimes while also not turning a blind eye to abuses is a tough question worthy of debate, which it unfortunately does not receive. Instead Esperantists in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are dismissed as collaborators.
What makes matter worse, is that the author tends to ramble off the point into irrelevant digressions. For example, the chapter on her visit to the 2012 IJK hosted in Vietnam starts well. She describes the culture shock and differences, some people and events (although little about the actual IJK) but then she veers away from Esperanto. The second half of the chapter barely relates to Esperanto. She talks about how it feels to be an American in Vietnam and see the other side of the Vietnam War, but it is annoying how she keeps making everything about America (which she also does during her trip to Cuba). She transcribes verbatim, conversations she had with a local Esperantist and entire email conversations. Then she describes some tourist sight-seeing she did with her husband, which does not at all relate to Esperanto. It strikes me as strange that important elements of the language were left out while much space was spent irrelevant details.
In her discussion of the history of the language, the focus is entirely on the leaders of the movement. No mention is given of ordinary people, of why they learned the language and what they did with it. Perhaps I’m asking for too much and perhaps the documents aren’t available but I would love to hear stories from Esperantists in the past about their experiences, even if it was only at the level of the local club.
A bizarre and inexplicable omission is the complete absence of Esperanto culture. No mention is made whatsoever of Esperanto books, magazines and songs. A non-Esperantist would not know these things even exist. How can you discuss a language and not how it is used? How can you discuss the development of the language without mentioning such crucial components?
Just as strangely, native speakers are not mentioned! In my experience, non-Esperantists are fascinated by the fact that native speakers exist. I’m certain that there is material for an intriguing chapter about the experiences of native speakers that would show the internationalism of Esperanto and its ability to deal with ordinary family life. There could have been discussions with parents and children about the experience, the benefits and difficulties etc.
There is a good chapter at the end on Bona Espero. The author travelled to the site and lived there for a while. She showed the realities of the situation and is realistic about how likely the children will continue to use Esperanto. However, like other personal chapters it’s a bit boring, containing long conversations with the caretaker and farmer about nothing in particular, about how she watched soap operas with one guy, an in-depth discussion about poverty in Brazil which was interesting but irrelevant to the core topic. Then she revealed that was going through a divorce at the time, which while I don’t want to sound heartless, has no place in a book about Esperanto. So many other worthy topics were cut out and instead there were her thoughts about being alone and teachers talking about their students.
It seems the author was unsure of what kind of book she wanted to write. Part of it is about Zamenhof and Judaism, part about her personal experiences, part about the history of Esperanto, but they don’t fit well together. Half the book is excellent and deals with interesting topics, but the other half is much poorer and I felt the author got distracted by minor or even irrelevant side issues. The editor (or someone) should have reined Schor in when she rambled off topic and a tighter book with better focus would have been amazing.
I realise that I’ve complained a lot in this review and maybe it seems that I hate the book. When writing a review, it is far easier to complain than praise and negative impressions are stronger than positive ones. In fact, I greatly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to everyone, Esperantist or otherwise. To have any kind of book about Esperanto is welcome and anything that takes Esperanto seriously and doesn’t unfairly mock it, is fantastic. This is a welcome addition to the discussion of Esperanto and will increase its visibility. In a sense, my main complaint about the book is that it was too short, I enjoyed it so much that I wanted it to keep going and not to end so soon.
(Update: I have written an Esperanto translation of this article.)