At a recent book launch at the Jewish War Museum the woman sitting next to me, who had heard Alexander McCall Smith speak in Sydney a few weeks earlier, told me how enchanted she had been by him. “When he laughed,” she said, “his whole body shook. But what I loved as much was his remark, in response to a question about his intentions, that his books are concerned with the moral issues facing humanity. Even after only two minutes, if I’m feeling down, I open one of his Botswana novels and my spirits are renewed. The music that I love best takes much longer to affect me like this.”
Marcia Eisenberg’s brief comments on the six volumes so far available in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series could easily have been mine. In the whole of my adult life the only other literature that has restored my balance so quickly when I’ve been depressed has been Jane Austen’s. Yet superficially, McCall Smith’s best-selling novels appear not to resemble her fiction at all.
All of his central characters are black. Although his major characters do very well if their material well-being is measured against the usual black African’s, they live in dwellings that would be the object of Emma Woodhouse’s charity. The untarred roads on which they travel between cities expose them to mortal danger: cattle that can appear out of nowhere, threatening to crush them, or venomous snakes that enter their car’s pipes before they realise that an invasion has occurred. During much of the year, drought threatens to rob their near neighbours of sustenance. Typically, decent people with jobs send money to relatives whose circumstances are more threatening.
McCall Smith’s protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, is a large woman in her late 30s whose vocation is to help ordinary people solve mysteries. As she sits on her verandah with her middle-aged fiancé, a mechanic extaordinaire and the proprietor of Tlokweng Speedy Motors, Mr JLB Matekoni (who is never referred to in any other way), or slowly drinks red bush tea with her assistant, Mma Makutsi—who has gained a 97 on her final exam at Botswana’s Secretarial College—Mma Ramotswe silently reflects on difficulty.
With an alacrity rare in anyone, let alone a female detective of “traditional build” who has left school at 16, married disastrously soon afterwards, returned home to her devoted father and purchased an unusual business after his death with the proceeds of a cattle sale, she tackles such disparate forms of wickedness as insurance fraud, theft, medical deception, witchcraft, probable murder, false identity claims, and adultery. After enduring the violence of Note Makoti (a dissolute musician) and the death of her infant daughter, nothing is too much for her: not even the sudden arrival in her home of two orphaned children in need of daily care, or the possibility of being murdered herself by a witch doctor.
Recently I learned from The Australian newspaper that there are readers who consider McCall Smith’s fictional world too good to be true. In view of the wicked acts just named, I find this charge as amusing as the typical excuses for moral lassitude provided by Mr JLB Matekoni’s two young girl-crazy apprentices. But the reasons for it are not difficult to guess.
Precious Ramotswe, JLB Matekoni, and their closest companions are people of absolute integrity. They thrive on simple pleasures: the prospect of two pieces of cake, the purchase of new shoes to replace their one and only dilapidated pair, a view of the distant Kalihari on the road to Mochudi, the look of the thorn tree outside a bedroom window, the sight of a crippled child being wheeled to school daily by neighbourhood children taking turns, the summer light of early morning, a car motor perfectly repaired, a beautifully swept footpath.
Happy—never sentimental—memories link the central characters with their forbears. Each of the main figures takes pride in national achievements linked with harmony and peacefulness. The restlessness and speed of modernity do not disfigure their daily lives. Warm conversations with strangers are as likely to occur in their meanderings as casual meetings with old friends. They appear neither to seek excitement nor to mind if nothing out of the ordinary happens to them. Spontaneously and without fuss, at critical junctures, they say profound things.
The view of the nineteenth century American writer Henry David Thoreau that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation has no provenance in McCall Smith’s Botswana even though modern ills—grandparents caring for their wayward children’s progeny, AIDS, forms of material deprivation that make the presence of two bedrooms in a house a luxury—are omnipresent. The natural world inhabited by his major figures, like the Australian poet James McAuley’s in his poem “At Rushy Lagoon”, has sense and use. With a restful ease that is unparalleled on contemporary literary terrain, he encourages us to live so completely in a world of his imagining that it is hard in the end to believe that the office in Speedy Motors does not really exist.
Here are two typical passages from two different books in the series. Whether, by themselves, these extracts convey the charm, warmth, and humour typical of the whole is hard to say. But, as Mma Ramotswe remarks when a friend tries to unravel the meaning of an African legend by speaking about the only thing that a giraffe has to give (its tears): “I hope so.”
Precious Ramotswe was sitting at her desk at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gabarone. From where she sat she could gaze out of the window, out beyond the acacia trees, over the grass and the scrub bush, to the hills in their blue haze of heat.
It was such a noble country, and so wide, stretching for mile upon mile to brown horizons at the very edge of Africa. It was late summer, and there had been good rains that year. This was important, as good rains meant productive fields, and productive fields meant large, ripened pumpkins of the sort that traditionally built ladies like Mma Ramotswe so enjoyed eating. The yellow flesh of a pumpkin or a squash, boiled and then softened with a lump of butter (if one’s budget stretched to that) was one of God’s greatest gifts to Botswana. And it tasted so good, too, with a slice of fine Botswana beef, dripping in gravy.
Oh yes, God had given a great deal to Botswana, as she had been told all these years ago at Sunday school in Mochudi. “Write a list of Botswana’s heavenly blessings,” the teacher had said. And the young Mma Ramotswe, chewing on the end of her indelible pencil, and feeling the sun beating down on the tin roof of the Sunday school, heat so insistent that the tin creaked in protest against its restraining bolts, had written: (1) the land; (2) the people who live on the land; (3) the animals, and especially the fat cattle. She had stopped at that, but, after a pause, had added: (4) the railway line from Lobatse to Francistown. ~ The Full Cupboard of Life, pp. 1 and 2
On the day that Mma Ramotswe travelled out to Silokwolela, Mr JLB Matekoni felt vaguely ill at ease. He had become accustomed to meeting Mma Ramotswe on Saturday morning to help her with her shopping or with some task about the house. Without her, he felt at a loose end: Gaborone seemed strangely empty; the garage was closed, and he had no desire to attend to the paperwork that had been piling up on his desk. He could call on a friend, of course, and perhaps go and watch a football match, but again he was not in the mood for that. Then he thought of Mma Silvia Potokwane, Matron in Charge of the Orphan Farm. There was inevitably something happening out there, and she was always happy to sit down and have a chat over a cup of tea. He would go out there and see how everything was. Then the rest of the day could take care of itself until Mma Ramotswe returned that evening.
Mma Potokwane spotted him, as usual, as he parked his car under one of the syringa trees.
“I see you!” she shouted from her window. “I see you, Mr JLB Matekoni!”
Mr JLB Matekoni waved in her direction as he locked the car. Then he strode towards the office, where the sound of cheerful music drifted out of one of the windows. Inside, Mma Potokwane was sitting beside her desk, a telephone receiver to her ear. She motioned for him to sit down and continued with her conversation.
“If you can give me some of that cooking oil,” she said, “the orphans will be very happy. They like to have their potatoes fried in oil and it is good for them.”
The voice at the other end said something, and she frowned, glancing up at Mr JLB Matekoni, as if to share her irritation.
“But you cannot sell that oil if it is beyond its expiry date. So why should I pay you anything for it? It would be better to give it to the orphans than to pour it down the drain. I cannot give you money for it, and so I see no reason why you shouldn’t give it to us.”
Again something was said on the other end of the line, and she nodded patiently.
“I can make sure that the Daily News comes to photograph you handing the oil over. Everybody will know that you are a generous man. It will be there in the papers.”
There was a further brief exchange and then she replaced the receiver.
“Some people are slow to give,” she said. “It is something to do with how their mothers brought them up. I have read all about this problem in a book. There is a doctor called Dr Freud who is very famous and has written many books about such people.”
“Is he in Johannesburg?” asked Mr JLB Matekoni.
“I do not think so,” said Mma Potokwane. “It is a book from London.” ~ Tears of the Giraffe, pp. 73-75