Books: Monster slices of whimsy

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Elephantina by Andrew Drummond Polygon, 206pp, £9.99

ANDREW DRUMMOND'S FIRST two novels – An Abridged History of the Construction of the Railway Line between Garve, Ullapool and Lochinver and A Hand-book of Volapuk – have marked him out as an original and witty writer. Elephantina will enhance his reputation. It's a ludic novel, lightly written, with nice touches of agreeably pedantic mock-scholarship. It has two narrators, both unreliable, neither as bright as he supposes. Though I have highlighted Drummond's originality, there are echoes here of that most unjustly underrated of contemporary Scottish novelists, John Herdman. Drummond for the most part shows a comparable command of his material.

The novel belongs to a Scottish tradition going back at least to the early and greatest days of Blackwood's Magazine. It purports to be a rediscovered text, or rather two such texts. The first – the editor's – was reputedly composed in Dundee in 1830 by "A Friend of History", who signs himself "Senex". The second is a narrative dating from 1707, written by one Gilbert Orum, an engraver, also resident in Dundee. (Both, one might add, are much concerned to praise their native city, and to disparage others, notably Edinburgh, Andrew Drummond's birthplace, and Aberdeen, where he attended university. Perhaps the author remembers that George Scott-Moncrieff once called Dundee "Scotland's superfluous city".)

The occasion of the book is the death in 1706 of an elephant – a mysterious beast never previously seen in Dundee. A physician and virtuoso, Dr Patrick Blair, is determined to dissect it (which he does) and then to reassemble its skeleton for display in his "Hall of Rarities".

The account of the dissection is given by Gilbert Orum, employed by Dr Blair to make drawings as he works. Orum, often recalcitrant and resentful, is ready to cheat his employer, removing pieces of the corpse to sell for his own advantage. The editor disapproves of Orum, warns us his narrative "is a Libel not to be relied on. Full of Deceit, Calumny, Slander and Scandal".

Moreover, he repeatedly observes that Orum is not only dishonest, but stupid, and he corrects his account or interpretation of events, in a succession of footnotes, which don't however confirm the high opinion he holds of his own intelligence. Orum is, admittedly, a bit of a scoundrel and not to be relied on, but he is considerably more lively and even, in certain respects, generously minded than his editorial critic, who is so offended by his frequent vulgarity of expression.

Since the events recounted are placed in the years 1706-7, there are also inevitably reflections on the business of the Treaty of Union, then being debated and eventually signed. While these add nothing to our understanding of that event, they are engagingly written, and bring some of the minor characters into pleasant focus. Most pleasing of these is the Rev James Robertson, of the Original United Secession Church, who opines that "all men were sinners, and it matters little whether there be a Union". Dr Blair himself, a man of Jacobite sympathies, asserts that "the people of Dundee are not so easily pleased by this Act of Union, and may even now be searching for those who have robbed Scotland of all pride."

The whole is engaging and convincing, the language only occasionally straying from that of the early 18th century (in the case of Mr Orum) and the 19th in the case of the editor "Senex". The reader is likely to be persuaded of the authenticity of the narrative and notes, partly because it is all droll and amusing.

Only the most literally minded will seek to enquire how much is Andrew Drummond's invention, and to what extent he may have drawn on documentary evidence. Did the elephant itself really exist? Frankly, the matter is unimportant. If it did not exist, it does now. Dr Patrick Blair certainly did. The Concise DNB tells us he flourished circa 1728: "physician; practised as doctor successively at Dundee, London and Boston, Lincolnshire; published medical and botanical works." As for Mr Gilbert Orum and the editor "Senex", I am inclined to credit Andrew Drummond with these happy inventions.

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