| Bridge of sighs
Portugese Irregular Verbs By Alexander McCall Smith,
Polygon, £ 7.99
Alexander McCall Smith is one of those writers who emerged from nowhere to become a phenomenon. He is professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has written a number of books on subjects related to his academic discipline. But like Charles L. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), McCall Smith shot to fame only when he moved away from his academic discipline. His first novel, The No 1 Ladies’ detective Agency, was a charming little book set in Botswana, which very few readers could put down.
In this book, McCall Smith moves away from Botswana and introduces readers to a different set of characters. This book goes under the rubric, “A Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainment”. Despite its name, the book has nothing to do with Portuguese irregular verbs or any other related subject.
Igelfeld was a very distinguished professor of Romance philology. He wrote a book called Portuguese Irregular Verbs, “a work of such majesty that it dwarfed all other books in the field”. But unfortunately for the good professor and his publisher, the book did not sell too many copies. The publishers informed Igelfeld that 200 copies had been sold but 737 copies remained, stored in a warehouse in Frankfurt. Over the previous two years, only six copies had been sold and at this rate, the publishers calculated, the stock would last well into the 21st century. The publishers had received a novel proposal from a firm of interior decorators who furnish the apartments of wealthy people. This firm wanted to buy the entire stock of Igelfeld’s books which had very fine binding, and they proposed to change the embossed title on the spine to “Portuguese Irrigated Herbs”. Then they would use the books as book furniture for the bookshelves in the apartments of the wealthy.
This put the professor in a real dilemma and he decided to find out how many of his friends and colleagues had actually bought copies of the book. He went first to Dr Unterholzer, a person he considered to be somewhat beneath him in social status and erudition. He was pleasantly surprised to find that Unterholzer had two copies. One was heavily annotated and the other had an inscription in Unterholzer’s hand which said that Igelfeld had presented the book to him. Igelfeld was thus suffused with warmth for Unterholzer.
Igelfeld, as the foregoing would have indicated, was a bit of an oddball. Fussy and a trifle full of himself, but not a bad sort for all that. He believed, for example, that one could play tennis by simply following an instruction manual. He had the same idea about swimming. In an obscure little village in Italy, he went hungry for two days because he did not want to confirm the rude landlady’s impression that Germans are a greedy lot. He fell in love with his dentist but delayed declaring his love for her; to his dismay he discovered that he had been beaten in the race by none other than Unterholzer.
The stories are simple and unpretentious. They are also innocent and delightfully narrated. It is easy to imagine McCall Smith composing these stories with a wry smile as he picked his way through the foibles of ordinary people.