Friday, 6 June 2014

Book Review: Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith my regular readers will have noticed without doubt, I’ve been engrossed in a lot of very sad, even depressing or disturbing reads during the past couple of weeks. Their burden is beginning to weigh heavily on the atmosphere of this blog and I decided to plunge into something lighter and more entertaining for a change. I’m also aware of the fact that humour is going rather short in my review list and I believe that it’s high time to do something about it, or else I risk to push my most loyal readers over the edge into clinical depression. Since I use to be attracted by everything connected to Portugal, if only very remotely, the comic novel Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith seems just the right choice for today’s review. 

Alexander McCall Smith was born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now: Zimbabwe), in August 1948. He studied law at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K., and then taught law (specialising in Medical Law) in Belfast, Botswana and Edinburgh until his retirement. In the late 1970s he made his debut as an author of fiction and from then on published several children’s books. The year 1999 brought his international breakthrough with an adult novel, namely the first volume of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. The prolific writer also received much acclaim for the comic novels of the Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainment series (launched with Portuguese Irregular Verbs in 1997), the Sunday Philosophy Club series (also known as Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries) started in 2004, the 44 Scotland Street series begun in 2005, and the Corduroy Mansions series introduced to the market in 2009. Alexander McCall Smith lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K., with his wife.

The eight quite independent, though interconnected stories of Portuguese Irregular Verbs are set in the world of academia and tell the adventures of Prof Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. He is a hopelessly principled and old-fashioned professor at the Institute of Romance Philology in Regensburg, Germany, where also his friends Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer and Dr Dr (honoris causa) Florianus Prinzel, are working as professors. They compete with each other and Prof von Igelfeld ever again finds reason to envy them because they seem to get more academic recognition than they deserve compared to him, the author of the 1200-page standard work of reference on Portuguese Irregular Verbs. The book sells so poorly that after some years the publishers ask permission to sell the remaining over seven hundred copies (of one thousand) to a firm of interior decorators that wants to change the spine title into Portuguese Irrigated Herbs so they can furnish the shelves of their customers with them. Hurt in his pride von Igelfeld wants to do something to increase sales, but of course his tries to make out likely buyers are so discreet or awkward that it doesn’t work out. On the other hand, he succeeds in thwarting an intrigue of Dr Unterholzer and Dr Dr Prinzel who took advantage of his attendance to a conference in Goa, India, to suggest a reorganisation of the library and to banish von Igelfeld’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs to an obscure back room. A Holy Man in the rat-infested courtyard of a decayed Portuguese house in Goa had warned him. Also other conferences as well as a field trip to Ireland, holidays in Italy and even a visit to the dentist bring the ivory-towered professor ever again into touch with the real world which never actually functions the way he expects it to.

In general, Portuguese Irregular Verbs uses to be referred to as a short comic novel, but I’d rather call it a collection of humorous short stories. As a matter of fact, I miss a red thread other than the three professorial protagonists or a frame plot merging the stories into one to think of it as a novel. However, this is only a question of label, not of quality. The characters, especially Professor Dr von Igelfeld, are portrayed in a very convincing way, no matter how exaggerated (and ridiculous) their idiosyncrasies may be. Throughout the book the professor’s view of the world is veiled by the outdated ideals that his aristocratic ancestors have passed on to him and it is even further limited because his sole focus is on philological matters. This allows for many comic turns in the adventures of the scholarly scholar who outside university behaves like an innocent child in a jungle full of strange things and noises which he notices, but about which he cares little. It’s true that the academic environment in which Professor Dr von Igelfeld moves is exaggerated too, but every insider knows that the author depicted much of it in a painfully realistic light. Alexander McCall Smith told his comic stories with much skill staying on the side of irony and never drifting off to the truly absurd. As a non-native speaker I won’t take a liberty to judge the literary quality of the English used by the Scotch author, but I definitely loved it!

In fact, I passed a particularly enjoyable morning reading Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith. The book was a mere pleasure and a very amusing one too. The character of Professor Dr von Igelfeld made me laugh every so often! In short, it’s a quick read which I highly recommend. And for those who want more of it Portuguese Irregular Verbs has also been published together with the following two novels of the Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainment series in an omnibus edition titled The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom.

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