I finished “The Unbearable Lightness of Scones” last night. It has taken a while because I generally only read a chapter a day. This pedestrian method, however, is completely consistent with the author’s intent and style, inasmuch as the book was originally published in serial form in the daily newspaper “The Scotsman” located in Edinburgh, Scotland. The title, as delightful as it is, derives from a single page toward the end of the book on which there is a 15-line discussion between three of the characters about the “sturdiness” of Big Lou’s scones. It is merely an aside that has little or no bearing on the rest of the story. It is as if Alexander McCall Smith came up with an utterly compelling phrase and then had to employ it in some fashion in the narrative, and was so tickled with the result that he used it for the title of the whole book.
I am not criticizing this approach in any fashion. That is what frequently happens to me. The last paper I delivered at Brigham Young University was an essay about Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir’s theory about cultural and language as reflected in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. I called it “A Thousand Words for Sand: Benjamin Whorf, Edward Sapir, and the Planet Arrakis”. In the fifty minute presentation, I think that I spent no more than 35 seconds saying anything about Frank Herbert or his masterpiece “Dune”. I don’t think that many in the audience were overly distressed; only four girls of the 200 persons in the audience walked out. Richard Hatch of Battlestar Galactica fame was across the hall making his presentation. Who can compete with the Adama kid?
Other than the title, I was particularly impressed with McCall Smith’s ability to get inside the minds of his characters, keeping them distinct and on-target. Of particular note in this novel was his portrayal of Cyril, the gold-tooth dog of Angus Lordies. In the same chapter wherein the sturdy scones appeared, Cyril finds himself laying down under the table where Angus and his friend Matthew are drinking their coffee in Big Lou’s bistro:
But when Cyril awoke from his brief nap, the problem that confronted him was not one of understanding what was being said over the table, but what he saw underneath, down at dog level, close to the floor. For there before him, only inches away, were Matthew’s ankles; half clad in socks, half exposed. It was a sight of which Cyril had dreamed, and in some of his dreams he had acted. This was Cyril’s temptation, and it was an immensely strong one. Indeed, had Mephistopheles himself concocted a challenge for Cyril, he could not have come up with a stronger, more tempting enticement. Matthew’s ankles were Sirens, and they beckoned from the rocks of his ruination.
He could not resist. For years he had gazed upon these ankles and restrained himself. But now he knew that he could do that no longer. His life would soon be over; dogs did not last all that long, and he wanted to do this before he passed beyond all temptation. So, suddenly, and without giving Matthew any warning, Cyril moved forward and nipped Matthew’s right ankle; not too hard – he liked Matthew – but enough for Matthew to give a start and look down.
Cyril looked up, his jaws still loosely fixed around the ankle; he looked up into Matthew’s surprised eyes. This was the end; Cyril knew there would be shouting and he would be beaten with a rolled up copy of The Scotsman. He would be in disgrace, perhaps forever. This was truly the end.
Matthew stared at Cyril. He opened his mouth, ready to say something, to shout out in outrage even, but he did not. He looked down upon Cyril and then, reaching down, he gently pushed him away. He did not want Cyril to be punished. He said nothing.
Thus we forgive one another; thus reconciliation and healing begin.
What a delightful way to present a lesson as old as civilization.