VINE VOICEon 29 June 2014
Dr Blair's cook is outraged by the storage of parts of dead elephant in her kitchen, while his assistant Gilbert Orum, who is to make sketches and engravings of the beast, finds his mind turning to mortality:
Never mind, Miss Gloag!" shouted the doctor […] "Just think that your splendid kitchen has this evening played a part in the History of Philosophical Experiment!"
Miss Gloag expressed her ardent desire that Philosophical Experiment would rot slowly from its **** upwards, die painfully and be ****** by Satan forever. […]
All I can think of is Death: the age of an Elephant; the age of Man; the age of Woman. Three-score and ten is considered the usual allotted span of our years. But it seems to me that the age of Man is either grossly exaggerated or that it has diminished considerably since the days of the Patriarchs, for the common age of death among the people of Dundee is perhaps thirty or forty, by which time the trials and burdens of the world have taken their toll; a fresh-faced young woman of eighteen may turn, in a matter of three years of marriage, to a woman of middle years, haggard, bitter, bowed, lined, grey; a man of thirty will pass, within a twelve-month, to a white-haired cripple if he suffers one of many possible accidents in his labour...
Florentia the elephant died at Dundee in 1706, and remained there in a stuffed condition, having been dissected by Dr Patrick Blair. It will be noted that another death was imminent, that of independent Scotland, for the Act of Union would be signed the following year and the negotiations leading up to it were going on while Dr Blair (an anti-unionist, who would later join the uprising of 1715) was busy on his elephant; indeed Blair explicitly compares his own dissections to those of the Commissioners "cutting and butchering the Body Politick of Scotland".
Of the real Gilbert Orum, engraver, not much is known, but here his imagined journal forms the basis of the novel. It is rediscovered in 1828 by a man using the pseudonym "Senex" and published, with Senex's footnotes, in tribute to Dr Blair. Senex, however, is both an ardent pro-unionist, which means he has constantly to blind himself to the views of his hero Blair, and a prig who disapproves vehemently of the caustic, independent-minded Orum without ever understanding him. His indignant footnotes to Orum's MS provide a rich comic seam running through the novel.
Orum is, in fact, a thoughtful, fallible, likeable narrator who comes to have his own agenda with regard to the elephant. Blair, dissecting and reassembling the skeleton, sees it purely in a scientific light, but Orum has a sense of it as a living creature – indeed he ends up being visited by its spirit – and wants, through his engravings, "to ensure that the world knew what the Elephant had looked like, how it moved, how it lived". Meanwhile though, he also has his family's pressing financial problems to consider, and frequently staves them off by selling various bits of elephant to interested parties.
What is the elephant? We should never forget that she was real; she lived, and died alone and in exile (as will Orum's descendant who inherits the journal and hands it on before departing for Canada, only to die almost as soon as he gets there). But what does she connote, apart from herself? Scotland? Knowledge? A cause; something to live for? All are possible; the novel's sub-title, "A Huge Misunderstanding", rather suggests that no one sees everything about her, like the six blind men in the Hindu proverb who feel different parts of the beast and come to six different conclusions about its appearance.
A final irony: this book about a huge beast is easily his shortest and sparest so far. But that doesn't mean there's any lack of the usual wit, fascinating detail and thought-provoking strangeness that characterises his writing. I've read my way through all his four novels now, more's the pity, and cannot wait for number 5.