Elephantina

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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