“The English were very difficult to read; half the things they said were not meant to be taken seriously, but it was impossible, if u were German, to detect which half this was”. Many such hilarious ‘words of wisdom’ are to be found in Alexander McCall Smith’s 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom. His best known series, “the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency” has many snatches of gentle humor strewn in with the suspense and the softened vignettes of Botswana. However, the 2 ½ pillars… is perhaps the first time the author dives head first into funny land. And what a dive it is.
2 ½ … is a trilogy comprised of Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and The Villa of Reduced Circumstances. The novels are about an “unnaturally tall” German professor called Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. The blurb on the book suggests that he is a bit of Frasier Crane with a dash of Inspector Clausseau thrown in. Pompous and gauche he may be, but von Igelfeld is also so much more. Gentle and introspective, he is acutely conscious of being fair and truthful always. He, along with his friend, fellow philologist Prinzel, constitutes 2 pillars of wisdom while the clearly inferior Unterholzer (von Igelfeld’s nemesis) is the 1/2.
Our hero himself (the author of such esteemed literature as Portuguese Irregular Verbs deserves to be called one) is not really funny. Far from it. He is actually the stereotypical German character who finds jokes perplexing and frivolity revolting. In fact these books are filled with stereotypes of every kind. The holy man from India, the patriarch from Rome, the guerilla revolutionaries from South America and many more. Yet, it is impossible to take offence at any of this because it’s written with such an obvious lack of malice.
To be honest, this was not one of those books that gripped me from the very first page. It was some time before I could feel any involvement in the protagonist and his world. But then, I had felt something of the sort when I read my first Blandings castle novel. By the time I was 15 -20 pages in, I was hooked. The Blandings castle analogy is particularly apt because 21/2 pillars does remind me of Wodehouse’s gentle wit and the sublime world he created for us in his books. A world that no longer exists, perhaps never did anywhere in the real world. While I confess I know little about the world of academia, I suspect that von Igelfeld’s idyllic world too exists only in the mind of its creator and is all the more beautiful for it.
The past week has been a tiring and rather lackluster one for me and I’ve enjoyed escaping into the world of Romance Philology every chance I got. Warm and mellow yet enthralling. This isn’t laugh a minute standup comedy, but I guarantee the smile will never leave your face while your nose is buried in 2 ½ pillars of wisdom.