In an essay for Prospect a few years back the writer Leo Benedictus noticed how many contemporary novels used what he called a ‘hindered’ narrator: that is, a protagonist (often a child) whose partial understanding of their world forces us to read between the lines. Unreliable narrators set out to deceive. By contrast, hindered narrators — such as the trapped five-year-old in Emma Donoghue’s Room — genuinely believe what they tell you: it’s all they know.
As in Room, a hindered narrator can supply drama and pathos, but it’s handy for farce, too, as Christopher Wilson knows well. He likes to write about science biting off more than it can chew (literally, in 1987’s Baa, about a fin-de-siècle biologist who gets into cannibalism), and he’s especially interested in the interface between naivety and pretension; with Wilson, a little learning goes a catastrophically long way.
It’s a theme he revisits in his latest novel, a scatological comedy of errors narrated by young Brother Diggory, of the Order of Odo, who is desperate to get laid during the Black Death. As the sole survivor of an outbreak at his monastery, he super-spreads his way through a ragtag bunch of bandits, bailiffs, pilgrims and prostitutes on a picaresque road trip that brings undreamt-of liberation to this meat-avoiding celibate, previously permitted to laugh only on feast days.
The effect is a little like Chaucer as told by Adrian Mole. Much of the humour resembles the amputation scene in Madame Bovary, in which the stable boy with a clubfoot gets his leg clumsily sawn off after bungled advice by puffed-up professionals. Diggory, once schooled by an older monk in the ways of ‘piss-prophecy’ (drinking a patient’s urine), finds himself in demand as a medic, recounting his ensuing adventures in gynaecology and neurosurgery with alarming deadpan.
This boisterous, bubo-busting muckfest would probably have felt more of an oddity were it not for the timeliness conferred by — well, don’t make me type it. A strangely dangling sub-thread involves the ability of the founder of Diggory’s monastery to foretell the rise of an ‘orange-faced king, Small Hands, with straw-yellow hair wound round his head like a helmet’. Cheap, no doubt; but I guess it’s true that, 700 years hence, if there’s even anyone around, our own notions may come to seem as laughably outlandish as anything Diggory gets up to here.