Archive for November, 2013

Elephantina

November 17, 2013

elephantina

It’s probably safe to assume that if you call your first novel An Abridged History of the Construction of the Railway Line between Garve, Ullapool and Lochinver that your primary concern is not to write a bestseller. If anything, its author, Andrew Drummond, seems fascinated by obscurity, from the artificial language of Volapuk to the ancient city of Novgorod. Drummond is a Scottish writer who has never quite broken through to the mainstream, perhaps partly because his novels have all be published by Scottish imprint Polygon, but also because (from the title onwards) they can seem wilfully eccentric.

Elephantina, while not quite in competition with J.J Abrams’ S, appears in the guise of a leather bound Victorian novel. Drummond joins the long Scottish tradition of Scott and Hogg (and more recently Alasdair Gray with Poor Things) of presenting the story to us as an 18th century manuscript, edited and annotated by a 19th century hand. The manuscript is the work of Gilbert Orum, an impoverished engraver from Dundee who is commissioned by Dr Patrick Blair to work on a series of illustrations of an elephant which has come into his possession:

“An elephant, I asked Menteith (Blair’s servant), here in Dundee? How came it here? What purpose had it in dying here?”

The elephant, touring the British Isles as a creature of wonder, finds itself dead in a ditch in Dundee and only just saved from destruction and division at the hands of the local populace by Dr Blair’s intention to examine the cadaver and preserve the skeleton. Orum’s plans are more self-serving as he pays off his considerable debts in the town using parts of the corpse: he sells a foot to the fishmonger as bait; the kidneys to the butcher; and to Mr Sutherland, the candle-merchant, he sells “thon pairts of a female Elephant which – ye ken – thon pairts.”

If it is the earthy, everyman nature of Orum’s narrative that gives it humour, this is accentuated by the prudish, uptight annotations of the editor over one hundred years later. The following reflects his general political outlook:

“The glory of Great Britain is not built upon barley and oats or whisky and rum, but upon a Christian Stalwartness among officers and gentlemen, and Native Ruggedness among men of the poorer classes.”

The novel itself has a political background, set as it is in the year leading up to the union of England and Scotland (which occurs in the novel’s final chapter). Dr Blair is much against this, the one thing which the editor cannot forgive him for, dismissing it instead as an anomaly of the time. (Just as we, of course, dismiss his own attitudes). Presumably the fight over the elephant in Dundee is in some way reflective of self-serving attitude of many of those responsible for the union – certainly greed is a recurrent theme of the novel.

The elephant finally takes pride of place in a Hall of Rarities in Dundee. If there were a literary equivalent, then that perhaps is where Elephantina should be placed, as something eccentric but entertaining, a foolish but fascinating undertaking that is well worth the price of admission.

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The Professor of Truth

November 11, 2013

truth

James Robertson also features on the 50 best Scottish books of the last 50 years list. Surprisingly, it is his 2003 novel Joseph Knight rather than his playful evocation of James Hogg, the more celebrated Testament of Gideon Mack. If that is Robertson’s stand out novel, however, it is only because he engages so nakedly with Scottish literature rather than Scottish history. Robertson is always an ambitious writer, no more so than in his previous novel, As the Land Lay Still, an attempt to describe Scotland’s twentieth century in fiction. Robertson’ latest, The Professor of Truth, while depicted on a smaller canvas, is just as urgently concerned with Scotland’s past. Taking the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 as his starting point, he has created a fictional version of events from the conviction that the truth has yet to come out.

His central character is a university lecturer, Alan Tealing, who lost both his wife and daughter in the bombing. Twenty one years later, Tealing has not been able to let go, despite pleas from his own family and that of his dead wife. The novel begins with the death of Khalil Khazar –the fictional version of al Megrahi – but Tealing is certain Khazar was innocent:

“Everything is still as it was, we are no closer to finding out the truth about who really killed all those people twenty-one years ago, who killed my wife and daughter.”

Where the novel departs from reality is in the appearance of a shady American character, Nilsen, who arrives at Tealing’s door. Nilsen worked at the crash site creating the “narrative” of what happened. In a novel that is about facing death, Nilsen is dying of cancer and has come to tell Tealing (some of) what he knows. In particular, he gives him information on the whereabouts of the witness, Parroulet, that placed Khazar at the airport where it is claimed the bomb was loaded (“ingested”) onto the plane. Tealing has always believed that this witness was pressured to identify Khazar thus preventing any further investigation.

If this makes it all sound a little le Carre, Robertson also uses Nilsen’s visit to tell us about Tealing’s life. This is where, as a novelist, he can give the story a dimension that another book about Lockerbie couldn’t. One small but telling moment is when Tealing sees a father and daughter playing a game looking at the pictures in a newspaper on the bus. Not only does it bring home to him his own lost relationship but the girl’s innocence in the face of world disasters. (Her comment on an article about floods is, “Why are they swimming?”)

This first section of the novel takes place in snow and ice, presumably reflecting the way in which Tealing’s life, and also to some extent his emotions, have become frozen. In the second section the action moves to Australia as Tealing goes in search of Parroulet. Obviously to say much about this would rather spoil the thrilleresque elements of the novel, but Robertson’s decision to set this during a season of fierce bushfires is a stroke of genius. Not only does it balance the symbolism, expressing both the potential of cleansing or destruction, but it emphasises the wider themes of facing up to both death and life.

In his comments on his choice of Joseph Knight, Stuart Kelly talks about how the past in Robertson’s novels is “urgent, pressing and angry.” That is certainly true of The Professor of Truth. The novel’s success, however, lies in it not only working as a political expose, but as a moving character study of loss.

The Panopticon

November 6, 2013

9780099558644

Having neglected Scottish literature for a number of months, despite my best intentions at the start of the year, I was reminded of my earlier aims by Stuart Kelly’s list of the 50 best Scottish books of the last 50 years – now the subject of a public vote. The books within the list seem admirably spread out over the previous five decades – around the same number from the last ten years, for example, as from the 1980s. However, it did strike me that this included recent novels from established writers such as James Kelman and A. L. Kennedy whereas in the 1980s we find early (or first) novels from Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks and Janice Galloway. Of the newer novels, there was one which I had heard widely praised – Jenni Fagan’s debut The Panopticon, published in 2011 – and if I didn’t actually have a copy already! I prevaricated no longer and read it.

Luckily, The Panopticon proved to be as assured as its press suggested. It tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl, Anais Hendricks, who has spent her life in the care system. Her only successful adoption ended with the murder of her foster mother. We find her joining yet another institution, the Panopticon, with the suspicion hanging over her that she has attacked a policewoman and put her in a coma. The novel charts her time at the new home, the friendships she creates, and the lives of the other children there.

Fagan tells the story in Anais’ voice – a necessity, really, if the narrative is not to be suffused with a value system that she is not part of. This is not an easy trick as Anais’ intelligence means we have elements of dialect (“tae”) and slang (“paedo”) alongside lines such as:

“The smell of wet grass filters in the window – bark swollen by rain, mulch, autumn, a faint wisp of woodfire.”

Initially I found this a little jarring, but such is the strength of Anais’ character I soon accepted her voice.

Anais is wonderful creation: strong but vulnerable doesn’t do her justice sounding as it sounds like the cliché of a lazy blurb writer, yet Fagan demonstrates both aspects of her character with an unflinching honesty. Just as Anais makes no attempt to encourage others to like her, the author makes no compromises in her portrayal. Her strength is not only physical – though we see at one point a rage descend on her in which she loses all control – but mental (I want to say spiritual, though the religious connotations of that word would mislead), a determination to be unbeaten. Fagan demonstrates her vulnerability in the very way she enables herself to go on, something she calls the birthday game, where she imagines alternative lives for herself:

“Imagine Paris. Imagine being born a beautiful, lucky wee girl with a beautiful mum, who I’d met, who I lived with; one who made pancakes, and drank gin, and listened tae jazz.”

She also imagines she is being watched by the Experiment – a nod, no doubt, to the fact that all these methods of dealing with children in care are little more than experiments and that Anais’ paranoid fantasy is actually quite close to the truth.

At the novel’s conclusion, I was reminded of Douglas Dunn’s poem A Removal from Terry Street where he sees that the movers are pushing a lawn mower and wishes them grass. I couldn’t help but wish Anais Paris.