Fact and fic­tion reach a lively crescendo

Scrun­dle: A His­tor­i­cal Novel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roger Coombs Roger Coombs

THE Scrun­dle is a vast mu­si­cal con­trap­tion: a stu­pen­dous as­sem­blage of bel­lows, pipes, ham­mers and strings which, when played, gen­er­ates suf­fi­cient dis­cord, vol­ume and vi­bra­tion to quell up­ris­ings, en­force sub­ju­ga­tion and bring on mis­car­riages.

This ter­ri­fy­ing con­trivance is the ‘‘ in­stru­ment’’ that con­veys the ac­tion of this ex­tra­or­di­nary de­but novel from the 14th cen­tury to the present day: from the rule of Ed­ward III and the Black Death, which wiped out about 30 per cent of the British pop­u­la­tion, to the 17th cen­tury and the dy­ing days of the Cromwellian par­lia­ment and fi­nally to the de­crepit precinct of a near-bank­rupt grad­u­ate col­lege at Cam­bridge at the dawn of the 21st cen­tury.

The ac­tion rum­bles steadily on, the links be­tween the dis­parate his­tor­i­cal set­tings kept care­fully con­nected through a dis­in­ter­ested, name­less ‘‘ nar­ra­tor’’, who in­jects him­self (we as­sume it’s ‘‘ he’’) episod­i­cally.

The ac­tion splices three sep­a­rate threads: the first, the ar­rival in Eng­land of the Scrun­dle and the recog­ni­tion by ri­val English barons of its po­ten­tial as a means to win royal favour, then the in­stru­ment’s de­struc­tion; the sec­ond, the trans­la­tion in the 17th cen­tury by a young By Ali­son Lynde Strate­gic Book Pub­lish­ing & Rights Co, 225pp, $16.97 scholar of a man­u­script that de­tails the ex­is­tence of the by-then for­got­ten mu­si­cal in­stru­ment; and the third, the dis­cov­ery of the trans­lated man­u­script by an un­scrupu­lous present-day aca­demic, who re­alises its com­mer­cial value and seeks to cash in.

Along the way, there is murder, ar­son, in­fi­delity, heresy and rev­o­lu­tion, the con­stantly shift­ing his­tor­i­cal back­drop of the novel. And while this is a work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, the ‘‘ his­tory’’ against which the braided story un­folds is strictly ac­cu­rate, and re­searched to minute per­fec­tion. (Read­ing Scrun­dle, you’ll be scram­bling to Google to track down the count­less his­tor­i­cal asides that add so many richly tex­tured lay­ers to this re­mark­able work.)

Its au­thor, ‘‘ Ali­son Lynde’’, is in fact dis­tin­guished Univer­sity of NSW Sci­en­tia Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor Conal Condren, whose sem­i­nal aca­demic pub­li­ca­tions span the in­tel­lec­tual his­tory of Europe from the 14th to the 18th cen­tury. Scrun­dle is in­fused with his metic­u­lous schol­ar­ship — and his fine satir­i­cal in­stinct.

Early on, for ex­am­ple, we meet ‘‘ Dr Clytemnes­tra Seathrough’’, mas­ter of the al­most-de­funct col­lege, who had been ‘‘ be­fore the op­er­a­tion, Dr Cle­ment SeathroughMarten, qui­etly proud descen­dant of the no­to­ri­ous Henry Marten (1602-80)’’. Now, Henry Marten — for those who, like your re­viewer, re­quire the ed­u­ca­tion — was a real and no­to­ri­ous fig­ure in English his­tory. He was one of the fore­most among 17th-cen­tury par­lia­men­tar­i­ans call­ing for the ex­e­cu­tion of Charles I, and lucky he was to save his own neck af­ter the restora­tion of Charles II.

Later, there’s a lively spoof of the re­al­ity TV genre when the BBC’s arche­ol­ogy team, Dig Eng­land, ar­rives at the col­lege ‘‘ with just three days’’ to ex­ca­vate its foun­da­tions.

For novel lovers with a his­tor­i­cal bent, for those pre­pared to tackle a text of con­sid­er­able com­plex­ity, for those with a love of lan­guage, this is a vastly re­ward­ing read. You will find it for sale at www.sbpra.com/AlisonLynde.

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