- - Friday, February 15, 2013


By Alexander McCall Smith
Random House, $13.95, 224 pages

It is truly tempting to speculate that at some point in his distinguished academic career, Alexander McCall Smith knew someone like Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, whose name is translated as “hedgehog field.”

The world of academe is noted for its eccentrics, and the author surely would have been ecstatic to encounter the likes of Professor von Igelfeld, the author of “Portuguese Irregular Verbs,” a book that is 1,200 pages long and sold, as he notes, “a whopping two hundred copies.” Von Igelfeld is described as a pillar of the Institute of Romantic Philology in the Bavarian city of Regensburg. He is also the bitter professional rival of Dr. Datlev-Amadeus Unterholzer, the owner of Walter, a one-legged dachshund for whose crippling von Igelfeld is held to blame.

Walter became a celebrity when he ate bones of a saint that were considered sacred relics of the Coptic Church. As a result, he was considered a reliquary for the fragments and was briefly venerated in a gilded kennel before which pilgrims would kneel — however taken aback by the sound of barking. The return of Walter to his home with the Unterholzers does not prevent them from continuing to blame von Igelfeld for the bone crisis, despite his usual refusal to accept any responsibility.

Von Igelfeld’s capacity to scale new heights of pomposity makes the book a lunatic triumph because it is written in measured and solemn prose by an author whose tongue is firmly lodged in his cheek. Nobody relishes eccentricity more than Mr. McCall Smith, whose prolific writing has ranged from the first ladies’ detective agency in Botswana to a precocious Pimlico terrier in London and a pedantic philosopher in Scotland. He pokes fun at almost everything, and his criticisms are usually gentle.

He indulges his bent for mischief with von Igelfeld, though, building a merry madness into mundane situations that focus on the literal-minded philologist. Gleefully yet gravely, Mr. McCall Smith relates the problems that beset von Igelfeld and invariably led to his perpetual blundering from one social catastrophe to another. Von Igelfeld skids to glory with the episode devoted to how olive oil can disrupt a dinner party. Von Igelfeld resorts to the oil in an effort to repair the wheel broken on the “prosthetic appliance strapped to Walter’s sausagelike stomach” after he falls over the dog. His solution of pouring a full bottle of oil over the wheel bearings results in drenching the dog and most of the floor.

As Walter tries to lick the oil off his coat, his owner comes to grief on the oil-covered floor and von Igelfeld‘ s reaction is to return to the dinner table as though nothing had happened. A pleasant evening, he observes.

The author employs his skill and subtlety in portraying the character of von Igelfeld, conjuring up simple situations all the more comical because the professor is so prosaic and so accident prone.

Mr. McCall Smith has created a character who might well exist somewhere in the depths of academia. Clearly relishing every word, he relates the problems that beset the ambitious philologist, yet never has another character suggest that the difficulties are of his own making. Characteristically, von Igelfeld offers neither explanation nor apology for the disasters he causes. Other insights into von Igelfeld involve his hopes of marriage to Frau Benz, a wealthy widow and owner of her own schloss (stately home). To her, he unfortunately expresses his contempt for the luxury car Mercedes-Benz, of which she owns a fleet. He is bewildered by her suddenly frozen reaction.

His duties as an inspirational lecturer to an annual student retreat lead him into a 3,000-foot fall in the Alps, from which he astonishingly emerges virtually unbruised and ready to accept accolades for his skill as a mountaineer.

By the end of the book, it does seem that not even Mr. McCall Smith could have invented von Igelfeld. The delightfully odd and bumbling character is too close to the kind of reality that most of us hope never to encounter. On the other hand, wherever von Igelfeld may be, long may he reign.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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