Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Dickens in the Kalahari

In the airport bookshop I looked around desperately, as you do, for something to read on the flight. The latest Grisham perhaps? In the end I settled for the fourth book in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series: The Kalahari Typing School for Men.

I have now read two books in this series, the first and the fourth. And the main thing to be said about them is that they seem to have very little to do with crime and detection; the fourth book particularly so.

This series has had an enormous amount of publicity recently, and is apparently going to be produced as a TV series before long, so you will be hearing a lot more. But in the meantime, in case you've missed the various mentions, you need to be told that the books feature a lady called Precious Ramotswe, who is Botswana's leading (because only) female private detective.

The author, Alexander McCall Smith, was born in Zimbabwe. He eventually became a professor of law in Scotland, returned to Africa to set up a new law school at the University of Botswana, and is currently Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh. He is a prolific writer, and has produced more than fifty books in the last twenty years, including specialist academic works and children's books.

So far so good. The guy is a pro. And I have no real problem with the Kalahari book. As an airport read it was perfectly OK. But here are a few comments.

First, this fourth book has even less to do with crime and detection than the first in the series, and even in that one the detection was decidedly sketchy. So what is Kalahari about then? Well, it's about the problems of finding a husband, keeping him happy if you ever do find one, dealing with difficult children (in this case two kids adopted by Mma Ramotswe), and setting up a new business (the typing school).

It's all a bit -- well, twee, frankly. The good characters are decidedly saintly, and the bad guys aren't really all that bad when push comes to shove. The only one who could be called a villain in this book is a philandering husband. And what does he do when Mma Ramotswe reveals to him that she knows what he is up to? He wilts, that's what. 'I am sorry,' he says. 'I will do what you tell me to do, Mma.'

Now, believe me when I say that I do not wish to cast unwarranted aspersions on anybody. But I do find it a little difficult to believe that a contemporary African man, when threatened with exposure by a busybody woman, would react quite so meekly. From what I know of the African male character, he would be more likely to seize the nearest sharp-edged weapon and chop Mma Ramotswe into numerous untidy pieces. Adopted children or no.

In short, The Kalahari Typing School for Men seems to me to be placed in an unreal world. To my mind, this world resembles nothing so much as the nineteenth-century England which was portrayed for us by Charles Dickens -- i.e. a world of lost orphan children, kindly old ladies and gentlemen, and more or less happy endings.

Having thought this thought I then did a search on Google for the author's name plus Dickens. And guess what? Lots of other people have come to the same conclusion too. You can read Amanda Craig on the subject here.

So, Professor McCall Smith's Botswana is not, I suspect, the real Botswana, or the real Africa. The dark continent, as far as I can see, remains dark. Indeed it is black and thoroughly filthy in places. It seems to be a continent of corruption, brutality, and, of course, AIDS. But there are only the tiniest and most distant mentions of any of these problems in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

But is that a valid criticism? Or even a criticism at all? After all, I myself have long held the view that all fiction should be regarded as taking place in a parallel universe. We don't have any problem with reading about Harry Potter or the Hobbit. And I am a definite supporter, on the whole, of feel-good fiction. In fact that might said to be the sole purpose of fiction: to make the reader feel better than when she picked the book up. So I suppose the only point I am making is that the reader should not, in my opinion, mistake this kindly and benign Botswana for the real thing. That would be a mistake which a great many well-meaning British people have made in the past.

For some reason I very clearly remember listening to a BBC radio programme shortly before Nigeria became independent in 1960. Was Nigeria ready to be given its freedom from British rule? That was the question which the programme asked, and the answer was a resounding Yes. Speaker after speaker came forward to testify that democracy on the Westminster model was well established. The Christian religion was widely observed. The judiciary was independent. The sun shone every day. And so on. Optimism ruled.

And what actually happened in Nigeria? Well, within a few years the country was thrown into a brutal civil war; and today that nation is one of the poorest in the world, renowned for its corruption.

Don't let me put you off Professor McCall Smith. Lots of people find him highly entertaining. It's just that, being old and grumpy, I find all that optimism a bit syrupy. What is more, I suspect that the learned Prof may actually be one of the most ruthlessly commercial writers to have appeared on the scene for some time. Giving the readers what they want, with knobs on.

1 comment:

Simon said...

An african friend, Zimbabwean father, Botswanian Mother brought up in Zimbabwe, Tell me that the "In Botswana the women run things" He made it obvius that Botswanian men were indeed considered henpecked.