New on the Bookshelf

by Chris Springer, Contributing Editor

“The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs. Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World,” by Todd Pruzan and Favell Lee Mortimer (2005, Bloomsbury. ISBN 158234504X — 208 pp., $19.95 hardcover).

It’s a small world, after all — and here’s a shockingly small-minded view of it.

Nineteenth-century children’s author Favell Mortimer wrote a series of books on the people of the world, full of outré peremptory judgments — “It is impossible to trust a Persian.” “The Chinese are very selfish and unfeeling.” “The Spaniards are not only idle, they are very cruel.”

These poison-pen tracts were recently rediscovered in a used bookstore by Todd Pruzan, who has distilled their venom into this single volume.

Mrs. Mortimer rails against the “idleness,” squalor and downright “wickedness” of locals from Malaysia to Portugal. (Her sources for all this ill will were secondhand — she left her native England only twice in her life.) And she oozes contempt for any religion outside the Protestant tent.

Mrs. Mortimer cannot be dismissed as a marginal crank — she was actually a bestselling author. Her opinions are like car wrecks, simply too repulsive to tear one’s eyes from, and yet they are also something else entirely: laugh-out-loud ridiculous. This volume is destined to be a camp classic.

Given the outlandish stereotypes Mrs. Mortimer trades in, it would be easy to paint her work in one-dimensional terms as well. But this hyperxenophobe is not always predictable. She comes out, for instance, on the Afghans’ side in their war with the British. “We cannot blame the Afghans for defending their own country,” she comments.

“Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry” by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch (2004, The Overlook Press. ISBN 1585676195 — 176 pp., $13.95 paperback).

Move over, Ruritania. Make way, Freedonia. The roster of nonexistent mini-states has just grown by one. It may not appear on your map of Eastern Europe, but Molvania’s got plenty of buzz these days, thanks to this tongue-in-cheek guidebook.

In Molvania the electrical current is 37 volts, and the language has four genders. The departure tax is one of the highest in Europe, but visitors agree that “it’s well worth the price.” Molvanian wines are exported worldwide, because “No one at home is prepared to drink them.”

For those familiar with Eastern Europe, some of the jokes will seem all too plausible — like the “historic” scaffolding on a church under perpetual renovation, or the end-of-day prayer on Molvanian TV that is followed by the “All-night Adult Movie Marathon.”

In lesser hands, such parody might quickly run out of steam (Malcolm Bradbury’s “Why Come to Slaka,” another mock Baedeker to a mythical Balkanesque state, comes to mind), but “Molvania” is more than a savage satire on the region. It’s also a wicked parody of guidebooks and can-you-top-this travel writing.

“If you really want to experience the true Molvania you should be homeless,” one of the authors asserts. “I once spent two weeks on a park bench in Dzrebo covered in cardboard.”