I have been a fan of Alexander McCall Smith for a good many years. Like many readers, I was introduced to his prose through “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”, but I have since consumed much of his other publications as well. The Botswana series is consistently delightful. The characters are endearing, filled with genuine sentiments, simple in an exalted way. I thought that the other series would bring as much pleasure as the first. In some respects that has been true.
The protagonist of “The Sunday Philosophy Club”, Isabel Dolhousie, is not nearly as charming as Precious Ramotswe, not nearly as innocent, nor is she filled with the same sort of joi d’vivre. She is, however, a moral philosopher and therefore the narrative of each novel is filled with an exploration of moral dilemmas, usually on an extremely personal level. I am afraid that some of Isabel’s moral choices disturb me, but I suppose that was McCall Smith’s intent. The application of moral values is far more difficult a process than the mere discussion of them. A discussion frequently becomes heated; the application frequently is humbling.
The “44 Scotland Street” series is considerably less-high flown than “The Sunday Philosophy Club”. The female protagonist is considerably younger than those in the first two series, a young woman still pursuing her education at the University of Edinburgh. The delight in this series revolves around the eccentricities of the other characters in the story. The twenty-year-old Pat MccGregor seems to be the only normal person in her world. Everyone else is wonderfully odd. I suspect that every personality quirk that Smith has ever encountered in his life is finding voice in this series. None of the characters are depraved, but all of them have some sort of bizarre trait or weakness that speaks to some aspect of the human condition. The reader never feels sorry for any of them, but rejoices in having come to know them.
The fourth series, “The 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom” is comprised of three volumes: “Portuguese Irregular Verbs”, “The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs”, and “At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances”. The titles reveal something of the spirit of the books. Of all of the writings of Alexander McCall Smith, I found these to be the most appealing to me. In the first place, the protagonist, Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, is a linguist whose moderate claim to fame has been his 1200 page work on Iberian philology. He has not received the accolades that he thought that he deserved for his masterpiece and therefore engages in somewhat paranoid thought and activity. Inasmuch as my own particular claim to fame also involved a 1200 page masterpiece, a three volume work on J.R.R. Tolkien’s creative linguistics, Professor von Igelfeld’s circumstances resonate within me. Igelfeld is clearly demented and borders on insanity, yet he has his moments of insight. I rather suspect that the protagonist’s personality is a concatenation of every academic that Alexander McCall Smith every met, including, no doubt, much of his own personal experience as a university faculty member. The three books are a monument to the frustration and dangers of living in the “ivory towers” of academe.
All of this came to mind this past week as I watched the opening episodes of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” that has been airing on HBO during the year. The BBC had brought the series to life, with Jill Scott portraying Precious Ramotswe. I had not realized how invested I had become in the world that Alexander McCall Smith created in his series set in Botswana. The BBC did the only reasonable thing by filming the entire series in southern Africa. Smith’s vivid description of the land and the people prepared me for the production. I have to confess that I had not been watching the first episode fifteen minutes before three little tears had appeared at the corners of my eyes. In many respects I felt at home. Part of the feeling came from several years of reading the books, remembering the undeniable love that Precious had for her homeland, a pure and natural patriotism that did not involve politics. It was her connection with the land and all living things upon it that delighted her. The other sensations for me had to do with two separate occasions in my own life when I lived in areas that were visually similar.
As a little boy, I spent my summers in Imperial Valley with my grandparents. My Grandfather Gaskill was a rural mail carrier in Calipatria, California. Throughout the 1950s I spent hours with him driving about the surrounding farms on dusty roads delivering mail in his old right-hand drive Studebaker. Some of the living conditions of the Mexican farm laborers were not much better than those just outside of Gaborone, Botswana. Notwithstanding their visual poverty, the men were universally friendly to my grandfather, delighting in the mail that he brought to them from their families far away. The spirit of that time and place was duplicated in the filming of Smith’s stories. I suddenly found that I had come to love Botswana as I loved my own grandfather. It was a surprising connection.
Many years later, I spent two years or so among the people of southern Mexico, living with them, teaching them. At that time, the country was deeply divided between the very wealthy and the extremely poor. A middle class was beginning to appear in those days, but the vast majority of the people were living in conditions not much different from those portrayed of Botswana. Notwithstanding the great deprivation in material goods, the Mexican people were loving and kind, full of hope and pure desire, not unlike that which the BBC managed to capture on film in their series. The Mexican people were deeply patriotic for much of the same reasons given for Precious Ramotswe’s patriotism. They loved the land and all things that dwelt upon it. I came to feel the same way.
I will watch the rest of the first season during the weeks to come. I am hopeful that my mind and my heart will continue to be as engaged as they were in the beginning. It is a precious thing to be enabled, to find commonality with places and people a half a world away. Great writers bring people together.