Now here’s a palate-cleanser of a novel for you. There’s something refreshing about a book that springs out at us unforeseen by fashion or precedent, though we might expect the unexpected from Christopher Wilson, whose previous fiction has ranged in subject matter from a zoo in 1950s Moscow to a monkey shipwrecked on an island to Victorian music-hall London.
Much of the fun comes from Diggory's reflections on the prophecies of the Nostradamus-like St Odo (who has foreseen, among other things, an "orange-faced king, Small Hands, with straw-yellow hair wound round his head like a helmet, who said that truths were lies, and lies were truths"). Some of the modern idioms or fourth-wall-breaking jokes occasionally jolt one too far out of the distinctive world Wilson has created. But the book is authentically medieval – or at least Chaucerian – in its indiscriminate and infectious delight in all aspects of human nature – innocence and bawdry, goodness and wickedness.
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.
Hurdy Gurdy bubbles with a convivial, earthy humour and Brother Diggory is an amusing antihero. The prose is highly evocative, full of flesh and blood: “I swear nothing better had ever passed my lips than that moist, fat-dripping, gravy-bleeding, flame-licked, smoked roast hare.” In style the novel resembles an unappealing diagnosis or macabre sermon, the speaker happily listing as many ailments (“warts, boils, headaches, infertility, itching, udder-fever in cows”) or sins (“wet sins, moist sins, and dry as dust sins”) as come to mind... This is an entertaining and atmospheric picaresque – though in the midst of our own pandemic, Wilson’s satire of misguided churchmen and unscientific plague doctors feels somewhat quaint: our own leaders appear far more monstrous. Still, it is often ingenious and frequently hilarious. Brother Diggory kills many, yet survives to tell the tale. I for one am glad.
Diggory, both holy fool and shrewd operator, believes that his miraculous survival and medical skills make him “special and chosen”. At the end of his “labyrinth of stories” we will see how much — or how little — he really understands. By then, “The old order is lost” and “We are all mourning”. If our bumptious young healer-monk grabs the last word, Wilson himself has the last laugh. Even in pandemic times, he hints, comedy is the superpower to purge one-eyed, self-deluding humankind.
Seeking respite from Chris “Memento Mori” Whitty popping up on the telly every five minutes, I thought that the last thing I was in the mood for was a book about a plague sweeping through Britain. But Christopher Wilson’s 10th novel, set against the backdrop of a medieval pestilence, is salutary: not only does it serve as a reminder that we’ve prevailed over this sort of thing before, it’s also genuinely and therapeutically funny... Some of the modern idioms or fourth-wall-breaking jokes occasionally jolt one too far out of the distinctive world Wilson has created. But the book is authentically medieval – or at least Chaucerian – in its indiscriminate and infectious delight in all aspects of human nature – innocence and bawdry, goodness and wickedness.
The Black Death seems an improbable subject for a comic novel, but Wilson takes up the challenge, and the result is fiercely funny. Brother Diggory is a teenage novice in an enclosed monastery when the plague reaches England. Surviving his own encounter with mortality, he emerges from isolation to find his fellow monks all dead. A wide-eyed, medieval Candide, he ventures beyond the monastery walls.
There is a cure for pandemic gloom. What you need to do is read a funny novel about an even more deadly plague, the Black Death of the 14th century. Hurdy Gurdy is that novel. Christopher Wilson’s bawdy, good-natured story lifted me out of the slough of despond, well, for a weekend... Wilson is an experienced storyteller, with nine previous books to his name. He knows that brevity is next to godliness. This tale is told at a fast clip in less than 250 pages. So this novel is as short and funny as Dudley Moore. A read made for plague-fogged brains.