Sunday, April 03, 2005

In The Company of Cheerful Ladies

If memory serves me -and it does so decreasingly- Jane Austen once likened herself to a Chinese miniaturist working painstakingly on a small piece of ivory. When you think about it, her novels are really all about women in search of the right guy. Hmmm. That means Jane and I are roughly on the same trajectory. WMD = Waiting for Mr Darcy. Having extracted that kernel of truth, it is easy to see how Emma became the basis of Clueless. The novels of Alexander McCall Smith are similar. For one, they are all set in Botswana. Not a country many of us would claim to know much about. They are not corny epics of the Uhuru or Zulu variety. Despite their cheesy covers, the novels (while being rooted in Africa) successfully transcend the exoticness of their location.
As with Austen's piece of ivory, AMS has a fairly limited canvas. His protagonist is one Precious Ramotswe, a Botswanean lady of "traditional build" who drives a "little white van." She is married to one JLB Matekwoni, the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Precious was previously married to Note Mokoti, a jazz musician and, therefore, a cad, a rake and a bounder. Her father (Daddy Ramotswe) was an expert in cattle - Botswana's largest export being meat- and taught her a thing or two about human nature. Precious also happens to be the owner of the Ladies No 1 Detective Agency - the subject of the first novel. Her partner in (the solution of) crime is Grace Makutsi, a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College- having passed with 97%- and the owner of the Kalahari Typing School For Men - the subject of a later novel.
This may seem like a load of unnecessary drivel. In fact, it is the framework which drives McCall Smith's novels. The books themselves deal, on the surface, with small town crime - what the blurbs call everyday domestic drama. In fact there is a fine moral tension which acts as a driver. So fine, that if you blink, you may actually miss it. McCall Smith, being a lawyer, (ahem) knows the subtle difference between moralizing and morality. He plays the point subtly and with great humour. There is the yearning for an earlier time, when life was much simpler, values (supposedly) more evident:
"Mma Ramotswe was horrified when she read in the newspapers of people being described as consumers. That was a horrible, horrible word, which sounded rather too like a cucumber, a vegetable for which she had little time. People were not just greedy consumers, grabbing everything that came their way, nor were they cucumbers, for that matter. They were Batswana. They were people."
The tone wavers from the downright domestic to the positively revolutionary:
"It was a strange feeling, she had always thought; feeling the breathing of another, a reminder of how we share the same air, and of how fragile we all are. At least there was enough air in the world for everybody to breathe; at least people did not fight with one another over that. And it would be difficult, would it not, for the rich people to take away all the air from the poor people, even if they could take so many other things? Black people, white people: same air."
Ok. It's not Lawrentian prose. But after you read the kind of stuff I do all day, it is refreshing to not have to dabble in pretentiousness. Anything that makes you smile in the age of passport columns has got to be good. Right?


Post a Comment

<< Home